Sunday 21 April 2019

'There's no point saying I want to go there for fun. I want a medal'

A major medal is all that is missing from Rob Heffernan's CV, says Cathal Dennehy

Rob Heffernan: ‘People say “oh, you train so hard, you work so hard”. Big deal, everybody does.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Rob Heffernan: ‘People say “oh, you train so hard, you work so hard”. Big deal, everybody does.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Cathal Dennehy

It's the hunger that keeps him going. Competing as he does in a sport where the currency of gold, silver and bronze remains king, Rob Heffernan is somehow still a pauper – at least for another few days, when the Cork race walker gets another chance to bring home the major medal he so richly craves, so richly deserves.

"There's no point saying I want to go there for fun," he says of Wednesday morning's 50km walk at the World Championships in Moscow. "I want to win a medal." This time, perhaps more than ever before, he's ready.

Rewind five months to a dark, grey Thursday in March, and Heffernan is sitting in his living room in Douglas, staring out at the ceaseless rain hurtling against the window in which he will soon churn out a steady 15km walk with nothing but his thoughts for company. No music (too distracting), no training partner (few could keep up), nothing; just Rob and the road and 15 kilometres that demand to be covered.

Earlier that day, he knocked out a long morning walk (lashing rain then, too) and a 90-minute gym session with strength coach Robbie Williams observing him on every exercise, shouting at Heffernan about a crooked knee here, a tilted pelvis there. A quick shower, an omelette, salad, chips and coffee at a local restaurant, and then home to where physio Emma Gallivan, who has travelled down from Dublin for the day to iron out the kinks in Heffernan's incomprehensibly fit and yet almost chronically sore body, is already waiting.

As Gallivan works on Heffernan, conversation with his wife Marian is regularly interrupted by loud, bellowing groans from the athlete in blinding pain next door. After the treatment, he sits for a while and then he's off, out into the abyss of a cold monsoon for that 15km grind. On days like this, when he alternates between moderate pain, blinding pain and mercifully just feeling exhausted, it's thoughts of Moscow and that elusive medal to crown a fine career that keep him going.

It's been a steady rise. His first Olympics, in Sydney, he was 28th. "I wasn't happy. I went home going, 'that was shit'," he says now. "Looking back, my set-up was totally amateur. One of our training camps was in Fuengirola in Spain and we were training up and down the promenade, which was ridiculous."

Heffernan soon linked up with walking legend Robert Korzeniowski, began a steep learning curve that taught the young Irish walker how to do things professionally. By Athens 2004, he was a top-10 contender, but a bout of gastroenteritis put paid to his chances. "I never said it afterwards because it sounded like an excuse," he says.

By the time he went to Osaka for the 2007 World Championships, medals were no longer a pipe dream. He finished sixth in the 20km in Osaka and followed up with eighth at the Beijing Olympics, but something was still missing.

It was the following year in Berlin when he finally realised it was time to grow wings and fly Korzeniowski's nest. After the Polish coach saw his best athlete Paco Fernandez drop out of the 20km walk, he walked off the course at a time Heffernan was still in eighth position. Heffernan always knew his place in the pecking order but, even still, that hurt, almost as much as his end result, a poor 28th.

He came close to quitting after that, himself and wife Marian beginning to wonder what the point of it all was. Some long, soul-searching chats with walks coach Yvonne Cassin ensued, and he eventually found the spark again, ready to tackle a new training programme and building a system around him at home where he would be the top dog. He went to the Europeans in 2010 and finished fourth in his specialist 20km race. "I was distraught," he says. Later that week, he tried his hand at the 50km, and surprised himself. Fourth again. Same deal at the Olympics last summer, when he carved seven minutes off the national record but still found three guys too fast.

You ask him if, looking back, he feels conned, given that Italian Alex Schwazer, who later tested positive for EPO, was one of the athletes who kept him out of the medals in Barcelona. Yes is the answer; he has a rough idea of how many medals he's lost out on due to dopers.

"If I had picked up all the medals I could have won with fellas being done for drugs, I'd probably have more medals than anyone in Ireland," he says. "But the way I look at it, in those races, I could have been better. During my career, I can't be going 'oh, he was on drugs, poor me'. I go 'fuck it, I could have been better here, I could have won a medal there, regardless of him being on drugs'. You're always going to have drugs in the sport, but people use it as a cop-out."

Heffernan is one of the most closely monitored athletes under the Irish Sports Council's Anti-Doping programme, unsurprising given his status as our only medal chance in Moscow. He has been tested 16 times already this year. He was tested three times while training in Morocco, three times in a single week while training in Spain in the spring. He knows this is the price he must pay.

You ask him if he's ever come across it in person, ever been tempted to join them maybe, ever been offered it? "Hand on my heart, I've never, ever come across it," he says. "I've never had those [doping] resources around us in Ireland, and I don't think one of your competitors is going to say it to you because they'll be putting themselves at a disadvantage."

Talking about doping doesn't bother Heffernan; it's a fact of life when dealing with the media in the sport he's in. What does upset him is the way the media has climbed off the athletics bandwagon post-London and allowed our top athletes to go to Moscow in relative anonymity. "I think it's a complete disgrace RTE aren't showing the World Championships," he says. "You've Mark English running 1:44 [for 800m]. Are people going to just jump on the bandwagon again when he becomes a medallist? I was over in Spain for a month and there was athletics on TV three or four nights a week. What's that breeding into the nation?"

Indeed, when Heffernan looks at the current Irish system of talent development and high performance compared to the more professional approaches he's seen abroad, he is equally frustrated. "It's better than it was 10 years ago," he says, "but at home there's pats on the back for stuff that's just normal, not even spoken about, abroad. People say 'oh, you train so hard, you work so hard'. Big deal, everybody does."

Few, though, train as hard as Heffernan. When his mission to Moscow began back in October, he was an already lean 63kg. He has since pared seven kilos off that frame – all veiny, sinewy, chiselled muscles, built for speed, anything superfluous to his needs long since shed. He has a Vo2 Max of 80, high even for an elite athlete, and to get an idea of his level, well, he walked a marathon in 3:10 two weeks ago at a steady heart rate of just 150 beats per minute, at altitude. He's logged more 100-mile-plus weeks than he can count over the last eight months. He's as ready as he will ever be.

He desperately wants a medal on Wednesday morning, but he's old enough at this stage to know that this is still just sport, that regardless of what happens, he can still go back to his wife Marian – who is expecting their second child early in the new year – and the sun will still rise on Thursday. It was a lesson taught to him two years ago in the most tragic circumstances at the World Championships in South Korea. As Heffernan was doing final preparations for his race in Daegu, he received news that his mother had died suddenly at home.

"People go on about sport and disappointment," he says, "but that was the worst time in my whole life. It was so, so hard. I cried all the way from Daegu to Cork, and it was non-stop crying for days. When something like that happens, you realise sport is only sport. My mam didn't know much about athletics but she was very proud of me, so it wouldn't matter if I won the Olympics or finished last, I always got the same response from her."

If she could see him now, 35 years old and going into another World Championships as a contender having given everything in Moscow. He goes there with a medal chance, up there with the heavyweights of the 50k walk, guys like Jared Tallent of Australia, Yohann Diniz of France and Sergey Kirdyapkin of Russia, whose achievements he respects, but no longer fears. "Everything has gone to plan," he says.

If it is to happen, no one would quite appreciate it the way Rob Heffernan would. No one would deserve it more either.

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