Irish walking hero Robert Heffernan came up with the biggest triumph of his life on Russian soil, the home turf of his biggest rivals, at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow when he set a 2013 world lead of 3:37:56, just two seconds off his own Irish record.
The veteran of three Olympic Games and four World Championships finally accomplished his lifetime dream of winning a major title after a solid career in which he finished fourth over both the 20km and the 50km distances at the 2010 European Athletics Championships and again in the longer distance at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“That is brilliant. This victory is very important for me and for Ireland. It wasn't until I got into the stadium that I could relax and enjoy it. I was fourth in London last year. This year I had great physios and I had no injuries. I was in even better condition and I was very well prepared for this race,” said the stunned and delighted Irishman, now 35.
“I have been motivated since the Olympics. This is a dream come true. I was prepared mentally and physically all year. I went through every kilometre beforehand,” he added.
“I have been saying all year, this is my Rocky scenario, to go to Moscow and take the Russians; that’s what I did and it makes me very proud that an Irishman can come to Russia and beat them,” he grinned.
“I had a great feeling to enter into the stadium looking up at the screen. I just rolled with it and enjoyed the last lap. The plan was to take it lap-by-lap, concentrate on everything, my head, my legs and my arms. Even when I was in the lead, it made no difference. I was focused on each kilometre and I was keeping it all for the last 10km. There was the temptation to go fast in the final kilometres but I told to myself not to force the pace and concentrate on each kilometre.”
He received a warning for lifting but it did not distract him, he was with the leading pack at the halfway mark and, when one-by-one it was whittled down, he dueled with Russia’s eventual silver medallist Mikhail Ryzhov, making his first break at 35km. “The warning can shake you, but it is part of the game.”
Heffernan has become the third Irish World champion after Eammon Coghlan in the 5000m in Helsinki 1983 and Sonia O’Sullivan in the 5000m in Gothenburg 1995.
“This medal is a massive exposure for the sport in Ireland to help develop race walking in my country.”
News of his win echoed very quickly around the nation of five million people, with Ireland’s president Michael D Higgins urging people in Ireland to celebrate his success. “All of us will share in this wonderful moment for Rob and his family,'' said President Higgins, soon after the well-liked Heffernan had crossed the line. “Rob came so close to success in the London Olympics and now, through hard work and dedication, he has achieved all that he deserves.''
Heffernan credited much to his wife Marian Andrews, an Irish 400m international. The pair already have two children, and Andrews is currently four months pregnant with their third child.
“I have been motivated all year," said Heffernan. "Marian offered me the biggest support. She decided to step away from her career to coach me. It’s not just me making sacrifices. She helps me a lot. I am very grateful to her. She is here with me and we are happy."
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF