For a long time Robert (Robbie) Heffernan showed potential for honours at highest level - but injuries and disqualifications halted his progress for much of the time since his first IAAF Race Walking Cup in 1999. Now the guidance of Robert Korzeniowski and the environment of his training group seems to have turned round the career of the affable Cork man - meaning he is, perhaps, Ireland's top hope for an athletics medal in Beijing.
“I’m going well and you can’t write anything off”, said Heffernan in confident mood the day before traveling from his training base in Poland to Cheboksary, Russia for the 23rd IAAF World Race Walking Cup (10-11 May 2008).
He was buoyant for other reasons too as he planning a walk down the aisle with 400m runner and fellow Togher AC member Marian Andrews.
“Yeah, I got engaged a couple of weeks ago. It was about time for me now being thirty years of age. I’m delighted - it’s all good! I’m getting married in October (after the Olympics).”
Marian Andrews has a chance of an Olympics spot for Ireland too. “She ran 55.44 in her first race of the season, so hopefully she’ll make the team for the Europa Cup, so she has an outside chance of getting on the relay team. So, it’ll save us a bit of money if we both go off to the Olympics together!”
Robbie Heffernan’s World Cup record goes back to Mézidon-Canon, France, but features just one other start in Naumburg, for 27th place, in 2004. Apart from an eighth place in the 2002 European Championships his fast times weren’t translated into major honours.
However, since joining Korzeniowski’s squad after the Athens Olympics, Heffernan has seen steady progress, resulting in fifth place in a national record 1:20:15 at the European Cup in Leamington Spa, Great Britain, last May (just losing out in a final sprint for medal to Igor Erokhin of Russian and Ivan Trotski of Belarus). He further enhanced his status with sixth place in the Osaka World Championships, defeating Trotski, Erokhin and the two other Russians Ilya Markov and Valeriy Borchin in the process.
“I look back over my career now I was so, so, raw. But with the professionalism of Robert ... it took a couple of years of walking with him to get it right. Just by staying injury free for a year meant being able to train properly for the whole year. What I achieved was a direct result of that.”
“It’s just about doing things right and being smart about it.”
They’re all training sessions for the Olympic Games
So far this year Heffernan’s has set an Irish 5000m indoor record (the second fastest in the world this year only to Olympic champion Ivano Brugnetti) and he gained another sixth placing in 1:23:45 for his 20km season opener at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Mexico.
“Everything’s going well” said Heffernan on his preparations. “After Mexico we were in South Africa for a month, then I came back to Ireland for a few days, then came here to Spala in Poland to train for the last ten days, and am getting ready to go to Moscow tomorrow (Thursday).”
“This year I’ve come up another level. I walked an Irish record indoors, and some of my training sessions this year have been a lot stronger.”
“I actually got a bit sick in the week of Mexico so it was a very good performance considering I wasn’t 100%.”
“My base level this year is just a lot stronger so my minimum performance is at a higher level. If I can hit it right and everything is going well hopefully I can cause another surprise.”
So are we likely to see a similar tussle to that at Leamington Spa with Robbie challenging for a medal in Cheboksary?
“Hopefully, hopefully, Chebosary, in the bigger picture, is another test. I’m also going to do Krakow (two weeks after the World Cup), and maybe La Coruña (7 June). At the end of the day they’re all training sessions for the Olympic Games.”
“They all offer little things to take on board for the Olympics in Beijing. Even racing in Mexico I came away learning something and, hopefully, it’ll be the same this weekend.”
Heffernan has some experience of racing in Cheboksary, in the European Cup of 2003 - although he’d prefer not to be reminded of a DNF.
“I had a stress fracture that year so my season finished after that and I never went to Paris. I injured myself for a year - I ended up with a double stress fracture in my metatarsals. On both sides. So that’s wiped from the memory!”
Even after returning from injury Heffernan suffered the strain of disqualification in Helsinki in 2005 but last year seems to show he has turned a corner.
“I train with Paco (Francisco Fernández) the whole year and for him it’s normal to be 100% professional. It’s the environment I’m in - training with Paco he’ll have his own people always with him; he’ll have a physio available full-time and Robert telling us what to do - you just have to look back and think ‘my God!’ this is the way it’s actually done, and it’s normal for them to be doing that even at a young age. It’s natural to them which is why certain countries produce such great results.”
“With the likes of Ireland and England we may talk about training but it’s not fully practical but over in Spain and Poland there’s a lot of theory but it’s very practical as well.”
This time last year it seemed a surprise for Heffernan to be challenging the leading Russians right to the final few metres. From now on it may, indeed, be a realistic proposal that Ireland has a chance of a medal at world level in the 20km.
Tim Watt for the IAAF