Sporting couple Rob and Marian Heffernan are hoping for Olympic glory, writes John Meagher
Rob and Marian Heffernan may have a happy, rock-solid marriage but from this week -- and for a five-week stretch -- the couple will sleep in separate rooms in the house they rent in Douglas, Cork.
The Heffernans are set to be Ireland's first married couple to compete in the Olympic Games, and part of their rigorous preparation means Rob will have to sleep on his own in a special tent that mimics high-altitude conditions.
Rob will set up the tent -- and its generator -- in the bedroom normally occupied by their son Cathal, and Cathal will move into his parents' room.
"Sleeping in those conditions will help give me that little bit of an edge for London," Rob (33) says.
"I know it's not the best for family life, but the tent means I can stay at home and get the benefit of high-altitude conditions rather than having to move abroad for weeks."
Rob is one of the country's most-respected athletes, and a veteran of three Olympics. He is a walker who specialises in both the 20k and the gruelling 50k events and is likely to be among Ireland's chief medal hopes at the London Games.
Marian is a 400m sprinter and will be part of the Irish women's 4 x 400m relay team that stands "a 95pc chance" of reaching the Olympics.
"This is a really big year for both of us, but we can't lose sight of our responsibilities as parents," Marian (29) says.
"Getting the work-life balance is tricky and takes a lot of planning, but it keeps you grounded."
Organising school trips, meals and the normal minutiae of a child's life with the demands of gym and track work, physiotherapy and the sundry details of a professional athlete's life requires military planning and Rob and Marian have worked out a schedule they must adhere to rigidly.
And the logistical challenges also extend to those periods when they have to engage in warm-weather training.
"We were in Australia for a couple of months and we brought Cathal with us and put him into a school there," Marian says.
"He enjoyed the change of scenery, but I did feel guilty about it. There can be a lot of upheaval for a child whose two parents are athletes."
Rob also has a daughter, Meghan, from a previous relationship, who -- like Cathal -- is already displaying considerable athletic acumen.
"I suppose it's to be expected that they'd show an interest in sport," he says.
The Heffernans hail from a county that has supplied some of Ireland's best-known sports stars -- Roy Keane, Ronan O'Gara, Sonia O'Sullivan and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín among them -- but Rob and Marian are not, as yet, household names.
"I train twice a day and work as hard as any athlete could be expected to," Rob says, "but I'm in a sport that the public only takes notice of once every four years when the Olympics comes around, and even then it's seen as this bizarre thing that looks funny.
"I wish my sport had a greater prominence because that would help with sponsorship, which is very hard to come by in a time of recession. I get funding from the Irish Sports Council which I'm very grateful for, but you certainly wouldn't be leading a lavish lifestyle on it."
It is a sentiment that's echoed by Marian. "Nobody gets into athletics for the money," she laughs. "I worked at the deli counter in Dunnes Stores for years to try to make ends meet. I've just finished a degree in sports injuries, which is a field I hope to go into full-time once my athletics career has ended."
The couple subsists on grants totalling €40,000 per annum -- a figure slightly higher than the average industrial wage.
"We are lucky that we get the free use of gym facilities and some kit," Marian says. "Otherwise it really would be difficult to keep doing this professionally."
As with all athletes, both have suffered setbacks. There have been injuries and disappointing performances, as well as the sudden death of Rob's mother last summer, but there have been enough highlights to keep both going. From "personal bests" (in Marian's case) to the honour of three consecutive Olympic appearances (Rob), the desire to be faster, fitter and more effective burns as brightly as ever.
"I became more focused when I first started going out with Rob," Marian says.
"We'd both been in the same athletics club when we were younger (Togher AC) and I'd always looked up to him.
"But when we started going out he helped me become more determined, to work harder to achieve my goals. I suppose I was a bit too laid-back before."
The relationship has helped her husband too.
"There were times where I was really down in the dumps, but Mar was there to pick me up, to give me that bit of confidence I needed."
Yet, there are pitfalls for a couple who are married to the job. "We make an effort not to talk about athletics in the evenings," Marian says, "but more often than not it creeps into the discussions. You can get a bit tunnel-visioned at times and I'm not sure how healthy that is."
Rob, in particular, has a single-minded determination that has put him on a collision course with others in the past.
"I would knife someone to get where I wanted to. Mar's a lot more laid-back, but I'd be lying if I said there weren't long tough days when we wanted to kill each other. That's the nature of intensive training I suppose."
He openly admits that he didn't talk to his father "for a
couple of years" when he was younger because he believed at the time that his dad wasn't fully behind his career.
"It's only when you're that bit older that you're able to see the other person's view, that they have your best interests at heart," he says. "You don't always see that."
The couple admit that their strict training regime can play havoc with friendships. "You just don't get to see your friends as often as you'd like," Marian says.
"You have to turn down invitations, weddings, you name it. And, for the most part when you do meet up with people, drinking and eating what you want is out of the question."
"It's the price you pay," Rob says. "You just can't do things by halves if you want to get to an Olympics and to make an impression.
"There are no short-cuts in athletics, no easy steps to take. You have to make sacrifices. There's no other way -- and that's just how I like it."