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No medal, but Rob walks the hardest walk

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Gunther Weidlinger of Austria falls after crashing face-first into a hurdle during the heats of the men's 3000m steeplechase at the
IAAF World Athletics Championship in yesterday.

Gunther Weidlinger of Austria falls after crashing face-first into a hurdle during the heats of the men's 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF World Athletics Championship in yesterday.

Gunther Weidlinger of Austria falls after crashing face-first into a hurdle during the heats of the men's 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF World Athletics Championship in yesterday.

YOUR immediate reaction at meeting Rob Heffernan, Cork's tiny nine-stone race-walker, is that you've seen more meat on a greyhound. Make no mistake though, Heffernan is hard; rock hard.

Roy Keane-hard in fact, not just in his chiselled physique but also in his training regime and single-minded dedication, which finally paid off with a brilliant sixth-place finish in the 20km walk at the World Championship in Osaka yesterday.

When the race started at 8am, it was already a mind-boggling 32 degrees, with 51 per cent humidity.

Yet while classy athletes like Russia's European silver medallist collapsed with heat exhaustion, the slight 29-year-old from Togher hung tough and got a result that warranted year after year of steadfast, spartan training.

Unlike Gillian O'Sullivan in Paris 2003, his heroics did not earn a medal -- but Heffernan's achievement should not be underestimated.

He was 14th at the 2001 Worlds but has been unfortunate, experiencing some terrible lows since.

Last season he needed two hernia operations and missed the Europeans.

Two years ago, at the last Worlds, he suffered every walker's nightmare, disqualified when he was lying 11th with just 4km to go.

But the gutsy Leesider kept his composure in yesterday's final 2000m when he was on two warnings, picked up between the 15th and 18th kilometres.

That actually allowed two men to over-take him in the final 800m, costing him fourth place, but he sensibly played safe.

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Benefit

He showed the full benefit of being coached by Poland's multiple World and Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski and training with Spain's Francisco Fernandez in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in recent years.

The man he simply calls 'Paco' is the two-time European champion and twice World silver medallist.

And there was a massive shock yesterday when, after taking silver, Fernandez was disqualified for 'lifting' in the final sprint only to be controversially later reinstated when he was judged to have gained no advantage.

Heffernan's instructions were to ignore any crazy individual breakaways and stick with the leading group -- which he did exactly -- shadowing Fernandez while Italy's Olympic champion Ivano Brugnetti got 19 seconds clear.

But when the Italian had two warnings by the 13km mark, Ecuador's walking ace Jefferson Perez pounced and went on to win his third world title in 1 hour 22 minutes and 20 seconds.

Tunisia's Hatem Ghoula and Fernandez went after him and then Heffernan, who got detached into ninth, had to keep his composure, finishing sixth in 1:23.42.

"I didn't get a fright at being up the front, I knew Paco was going to make a move so I had to be prepared when the field split and control my own situation, which is how it panned out," he said," grinning from ear-to-ear. "I had two cards there at the end so I wasn't far off a medal and I feel there's more there. I'm over the moon. It's great to bring such a positive marker into the Olympics next year.

"I'm a lot more mature in my performances now from working with Robert. The first five laps I was thinking 'this is just the warm-up' whereas before I'd be buzzing in front of a crowd!"

Adored

His performance matched Jimmy McDonald's famous Olympic sixth in Barcelona andcrucially should substantially improve his government grant-aid.

It also finally made up for having to spend so much time abroad training, away from his adored little daughter Megan, whose name he has tattooed, Beckham-style, across the base of his back.

Heffernan continued the excellent vein of early Irish form at Osaka that started with Roisin McGettigan and Fionnuala Britton who have qualified for today's 3000m steeplechase final (12.20pm), where the former has the better chance of a top-five finish.

But it is on another Leesider -- Derval O'Rourke -- that all eyes and heavy expectations will rest today, in her first championship appearance since taking European silver last summer.

The Cork hurdler has cautioned everyone to be realistic about the step-up in standard.

Since running her Irish record of 12.72 seconds in the Gothenburg final, she skipped the indoor season to concentrate on Osaka but was then unlucky to be hampered by a string of injury problems last winter.

She struggled to break 12.9 for most of the summer but encouragingly, did it just two weeks ago, running 12.8.

The problem is though, that the world's best - American, Canadian and Caribbean sprint hurdlers - regularly run even faster speeds than that of 12.6 and lower. This season's top 10 times in the world are all sub 12.72. Defending champion Michelle Perry (USA) ran 12.44, Susanne Kallur, who took gold in Sweden, has a PB of 12.52 and a season-best of 12.62.

But O'Rourke, always a great championship performer, remains optimistic.

Random

"I've had a bit of a random season and my concentration's been a little complacent," she admitted.

"But championships are a clean slate, this is pure athletics, this is what I love. You just have to run like hell, you've no other option."

The precarious nature of hurdling usually yields a few big first round casualties at World Championships.

But, barring a complete and utter disaster, she should make the semi-finals and will then have to produce her A-game to progress further.

Maybe,just maybe, she can a shock by winning a medal.


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