Cathal Dennehy, one of our newest partners (he and Fiedhlim Kelly manage Jumping-the-Gun.com), wrote this fine piece on Robert Heffernan. Robert is a racewalker. He is a man obsessed with walking as fast as one can with style being judged while doing it. 20 kilometers, 50 kilometers.
By Cathal Dennehy
It may have taken more than four years to get it, but for Irish race walker Rob Heffernan – who was presented with his European 20km bronze medal on Friday evening – it’s still a case of better late than never.
Heffernan finished fourth in both the 20km and 50km race walks at the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010, but was recently upgraded to bronze in the 20km event after Russia’s Stanislav Emelyanov was disqualified for irregularities in his biological passport.
“It’s a lovely feeling,” said Heffernan shortly after being presented with his medal by distance great Sonia O’Sullivan. “I was bitterly disappointed at the time, and to have a 20k international medal now is something that makes me very proud. I did have suspicions at the time, and you’re always hoping in every race you finish fourth in that it’s going to turn into a medal, for whatever reason.”
Heffernan has since gone on to finish fourth in the 2012 Olympics in the 50km event, and then won gold in the same event at the World Championships in Moscow last year. You ask him if he feels any bitterness about originally having that medal, that moment, stolen from him, and along with it the financial rewards that it would have brought his way.
“There is a bit [of bitterness]. Commercially, you can lose out on a lot of money, funding-wise, support-wise, because a medal is different to fourth. If you have a medal, so much more can be done, and you often make a livelihood out of it. If you don’t have the money to support a proper structure, you can’t train like a full-time athlete, and if you can’t do that you’re not going to be able to compete with the best in the world.”
For many years, Heffernan has felt he has to adhere to a different set of rules, and anti-doping procedures, than some of his competitors faced in their home countries, most notably the Russian athletes who have often dominated the race walks. “I’ve been tested 35 times since London ,” he says. “If I go on a camp, I could be tested four times in a week, but that’s normal. I’m world champion so you’re going to be tested X amount of times. Other countries don’t have that. If you go in and test in Russia you have to get a visa, the same in China, and there’s suspicions in Ukraine as well that there’s little or no testing.”
In the 2012 Olympics, Heffernan finished fourth in the 50km race walk, which was won by Russia’s Sergey Kirdyapkin. While Kirdyapkin has never tested positive or been implicated in a doping scandal, Heffernan can’t help but have his suspicions, given the Russian was coached by Viktor Chegin, who has coached 17 athletes who have tested positive. Chegin was dropped from the Russian team at the European Championships in August in connection with the anti-doping probe into the race-walking centre in Saransk, where Chegin and Kirdyapkin were based.
“I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about the Russian doping story, but it doesn’t shock me,” says Heffernan. “I don’t blame the athletes as people, I blame the system. For me, it’s wrong and I hope they all get caught and I get another medal from Barcelona, a medal from the Olympics, but I kind of don’t want to know about it because I know if I can focus on doing what I did I London, doing what I did in Moscow, that I can still be up there mixing with the medals.”
Far from being discouraged by recent doping revelations, Heffernan sees it as proof that the current anti-doping measures are effective. However, he’s not naÃ¯ve enough to believe there aren’t still athletes able to evade the testing. “If they keep implementing what they have now, profiling the athletes, the results they’re getting show the sport is getting cleaner, but it can be a cat-and-mouse thing,” he says. “Maybe they’ll start doping athletes now before they get on the biological passport so their passport will always be doped; I don’t know.”
For now, Heffernan’s mind is focused on getting back to his best in time to defend his title at the World Championships in Beijing next August. After recently discovering the root cause of his underperformance and subsequent dropout in the 50km event at the Europeans in August, he has good reason to feel positive about the year ahead.
“I’m flying, I’m very happy,” he says, when asked about his current fitness. “I found out I had a hernia in Zurich and I had nerve damage in the groin. I questioned everything about myself after that race, and now it’s fixed I feel I’ve a load of energy again.
“I want to get back to competing and training hard again, regardless of if I win a medal or not. I’m going to try to win a medal again, anyway, but I’m happy just to be healthy. I’m very motivated.”