Sunday 18 February 2018

A love affair with a ball and chain

'If you go to the Olympics, if you don't try and do everything you can to do your best . . . if you try to take the cautious approach, you're going to go to your grave miserable," says Dr Declan Hegarty. He's talking about the 1984 Los Angeles Games, which saw him represent Ireland in the hammer throw, an event completely dominated by the Irish and Irish-Americans in the early years of the modern Olympics. "So, you go there, and you go for it."

Two of his throws at LA were fouls, mistimed releases known as 'hooks', which, as the media coverage since has tended to focus on, resulted in the destruction of the safety cage that stands behind the athletes. But his second throw of 70.56 metres -- although some six metres off his personal best going into the games -- still stands 28 years later as the furthest distance an Irish hammer thrower has thrown at the Olympics.

Prior to the 1984 games, Hegarty had competed as a US college athlete and at the 1983 World Track and Field Championship. From Walkinstown, in Dublin, Hegarty went to Boston University to study physical education and, like a number of Irish athletes, was able to train with the financial support of the US collegiate system.

"Making the (Olympic) team was based on getting over the qualifying standard" of 72 metres, he says, and having done that he was selected by the Irish Olympic Council for the Los Angeles Games. He was 23.

Hegarty had set the Irish hammer-throwing record in 1983 and again in 1984, and the distances he was throwing in the run-up to the Olympics were encouraging.

"(Los Angeles in 1984) was the first time in history the Eastern bloc weren't there, so instead of having a chance to make the final, I had a chance to win it. My best throw was 76 metres going into the Games, and the guy (Finland's Juha Tiainen) won it with 78 metres."

It wasn't to be, though, and Hegarty is sanguine about it. "As a hammer thrower, you're going around in circles at (very high speed), you've got to stay in a seven-foot circle and put it in a 14-degree sector . . . it's very, very tight."

"You do your best, and it sometimes doesn't hold up, but that's life. I'm not making excuses -- I gave it my best, and, overall, that's what happens."

But some of what was written afterwards rankles him. "There are people who say things like, 'Declan Hegarty knocking the cage over in the Olympics represented a huge setback for Irish hammer throwing', (which) I find a little offensive.

"Ireland is the greatest hammer-throwing nation in the history of the Earth, and I've thrown the hammer further than anybody in the history of Ireland," he adds.

Indeed, speaking the year after the Los Angeles Games, Irish Olympic legend Dr Pat O'Callaghan -- who took gold in the hammer at the 1928 and 1932 Olympics -- said the jeering at Hegarty's performance in LA was unwarranted, and that the younger hammer thrower was one to watch. He was proved right when Hegarty set the Irish record for a third time in California in 1985, with a distance of 77.80 metres.

This record, which still stands today, was set at one of the biggest US hammer competitions, known as the Mt SAC Relays. "At the circle (in Mt SAC), they put up a sign that said 'world's greatest hammer ring' because there were four national records broken from that circle," says Hegarty.

That same year, he came second to two-time Olympic champion Yuriy Sedykh of the USSR -- who would set the current world record in 1986 -- at the Cork City Sports display competition.

Yet despite these successes, Hegarty was unable to continue and try to qualify for the Seoul Games in 1988. By 1986, he was struggling with injuries and, having graduated from Boston University, no longer had the financial support of the college system for his training. "I was painting houses for 10 hours a day and then I was trying to go and train at the same level as Olympic hammer throwers," he says wryly.

Retiring, ranked 23rd in the world, he chose not to follow the route of many former Olympians and go into coaching. Instead, he "used the education that I'd got from the early days of hammer throwing" and went back to Ireland to study medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons.

Today, he works as a general surgeon in Inverness, Florida. "I'm the sixth child of a milkman, born in Dublin . . . we weren't that privileged growing up . . . and I ended up getting into a medical school. I trained at Johns Hopkins, which is the Olympic Games of general surgery, in my mind. And I'm pretty proud of that."

"I owe that to the hammer throwing," he says.

Irish Independent Supplement

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