Charismatic Corkman takes Moscow gold, writes James Sullivan.
Ireland’s Robert Heffernan put in a sensational display to claim gold in the men’s 50km Race Walk at the World Championships in Moscow this morning. The Togher AC athlete clocked a world leading time of 3:37:56 to take victory ahead of Russia’s Mikhail Ryzhov, who finished in second place, 62 seconds adrift, with Jared Tallent winning bronze in 3:40:03, Australia’s first medal of these championships.
“It’s hard to take it in at the moment. It was weird coming into the stadium and seeing myself on the big screen and I was thinking ‘I look good like’.” remarked the charismatic Heffernan, who becomes Ireland’s first World Championship gold medalist since Sonia O’Sullivan tasted 5000m success in Gothenburg in 1995. “I felt daycent like! This year my training went really well and I was in the physio room the other night and Emma Gallivan checked me and I thought, I have no excuses. There can be no excuse at all this year.”
“Physically and mentally everything has been better this year. Nothing was going to go wrong. I was just going to go in and enjoy it. I’m at a new level and you feed off that. I just felt as if I grew and grew and grew as the race went on. There was nobody getting carried away and I just took it bit by bit. You don’t want to fall apart. If you’re body’s able to do it you’re able to do it. I just kept on working in the here and now and not try to think too far up the road.”
The 35 year old paced himself perfectly throughout the grueling 50km distance, electing not to go with the early leaders, and finished the strongest during rising temperatures. “Conditions were good. They were no problem for me.” he stated. “Everything went well. My drinks went well and everybody with me grew and they were more composed as well”
“Even Marian and Ray Flynn on the drinks table were very composed. I fired Ray in Berlin four years ago and he’s after growing as well” laughed Heffernan, who becomes only the second Irish man to claim a World title, coincidentally on the 30th anniversary of Eamonn Coghlan’s 5000m triumph in Helsinki.
The Corkman has been no stranger to major championship heartache, finishing in fourth place in both the 20k and 50k at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona and again at the London Olympics over the longer distance last year. But despite breaking his medal duck, he insists that this success is not merely for him, but one for the entire country. “At home all year I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from people and I had such a feeling of goodwill from everybody wanting me to do well in a genuine way and I fed off that in the last 10k. I was thinking ‘it’s not for you Rob it’s for everyone. It’s for Ireland. It’s to lift the team and lift the sport’ and I was very proud of that as well.”
This victory is no overnight success, but one achieved through the daily grind week in, week out, along the streets of Cork, morning and night. “It was all about today” he explained. “It’s all about the championship and nothing else mattered all year. Out of the whole year I missed six days and that’s the most I’ve missed in three years. Three years, and I was nearly suicidal.”
Along with the hard yards in training, Heffernan commented that his success can also be attributed to his former coach, Poland’s four time Olympic champion, Robert Korzeniowski. “He was probably my biggest inspiration and my biggest hero in the sport and he’s done so much for Irish walking, but he was also my biggest motivation today because he said four years ago that I would never do a 50k and that I wasn’t mature enough and that I was too erratic.”
Motivation, however, has never been a problem for the likeable Irishman, who despite tremendous consistency at the highest level, remained up to now, one of the unsung heroes of Irish sport. “There’s so much hype before the Olympics, so much media hype, and it’s easier to be motivated” explained a passionate Heffernan. “This is not the case this year. Even with the Irish media out here, they’re out here off their own back. So I had to stay more motivated this year than before London. It’s very easy to stay motivated when you have so much attention. This year it was dead at home , we had no RTE coverage out here. There was no coverage at home. It should have been on TV and especially that I did so well and anybody who knew me knew I was going to have a chance at getting a medal.”
Discussions about the lack of presence of both Ireland’s national broadcaster and major newspapers in Moscow will no doubt resurface over the coming days, but today is all about Rob Heffernan, a man who has bounced back through frustration and being close to quitting the sport on a couple of occasions over the past ten years, to achieve the major championship medal which he was destined for.
The one blip on an otherwise perfect day for the Cork star is that his winning time fell an agonising two seconds short of his Irish national record which he set in London last year. “Aw was I? I missed it, ah shit!” replied an oblivious Heffernan. “I didn’t realise that, and I was putting the hands up in the air in the last 200m. Ah it doesn’t matter.”
With the medal in his back pocket, thoughts now turn to how he will celebrate his gold medal triumph. “I don’t know yet. I’ve been institutionalised for the last few months.”