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Athletics: Olympic duo lead Irish walking hopes in Portugal

World-class race walkers Olive Loughnane and Robert Heffernan will lead Ireland's medal hopes in next year's Olympics and their quality should shine through at the European Cup of Race Walking in Olhao, Portugal tomorrow.

Cork-based Galway star Loughnane (Loughrea) followed in the footsteps of Gillian O'Sullivan by taking silver in the World Championships in Berlin in 2009, but was forced to drop out of the European Championships in Barcelona last summer.

But she has bounced back, clinching an early Olympic qualifying standard when winning a race in Slovakia in March. Loughnane raced again in Rio Maior two weeks later, but had to drop out and now admits that she tried to race again too soon.

However, she looks ready to rock again and spent the last two weeks on Athletics Ireland's High Performance training camp in Monte Gordo, not far from tomorrow's race venue.

With Russia dominating women's race walking, this event should give her an excellent workout ahead of the World Championships in Korea in late August.

Cork native Heffernan, who was fourth in both the 20km and 50km in Barcelona last summer, also got the Olympic qualifying mark in March when he finished fifth in Lugnano. He followed that up with a sixth place in Rio Maior.

He then did a big block of altitude training in South Africa and has recently trained in Granada.

It speaks volumes about the expectations that these two stars have created for themselves that so little fanfare accompanied their early Olympic qualification.

But their influence can already be seen by the growing depth in Irish race walking -- Ireland has entries in all five races this weekend.

Laura Reynolds (Ballinamore) joins Loughnane in the women's 20km and there is a full Irish team -- Kate Veale (West Waterford), Emma Prendiville (Farranfore/Maine) and Maeve Curley (Craughwell) -- in the junior women's 10km.

Veale is a prodigy who has repeatedly smashed national junior records and just missed a medal when fourth over 5km at last year's Youth Olympics in Singapore.

Heffernan is expected to go for the double in Korea this summer, but is concentrating on the 20km in Portugal, where he will be joined by Michael Doyle (Tara) and Brendan Boyce (Letterkenny).

In the injury-enforced absence of Jamie Costin, Ireland's other long-distance specialist Colin Griffin (Ballinamore), who was 11th in the Europeans, will compete in the 50km, while Evan Lynch (Clonmel) races in the junior 10km.

Irish Independent