ROB HEFFERNAN’S list of achievements in athletics is quite extensive.
The Cork native won a bronze medal in the 50km walking race at the 2012 London Olympics, a gold medal at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow in the same event and bronze in the 20km walking race at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona.
But what inspired him to achieve those feats was the first time he attended the Cork City Sports.
“Growing up I was playing football with Nemo but when you’re exposed to it (Cork City Sports) then you realise there’s a bigger world outside the parish,” recalls Heffernan.
“It definitely motivated me. I was running with Togher as well but when you see an event like that and you see the effect it has on the public it triggers something in your mind. It makes you want to look like them, train like them and run like them at the time you know.
“I remember going to the Mardyke when it was on there and the crowds so only being small I was blown away by it all.
“The Africans in particular, when I used to see the Kenyan athletes running or the American sprinters as well it was mind-blowing.
“Then seeing our own Sonia O’Sullivan going up against them back then it gave you hope in the sense that if Sonia can beat the Africans then we can do it as well.
“It broke those barriers down in my head and it was always a dream of mine to compete in the Cork City sports.”
That dream became a reality towards the end of the last decade as Heffernan helped introduce the Cork City sports to race walking and was able to take part in the event for the first time. It would also prove to the only time he competed in this race at the Mardyke, where he used to watch it as a kid.
“That was very special, that’s where I watched it when I was young and even now I can remember where my mom and dad were, my mom being on the corner and that was very special for them as well,” he added.
“That was even before I went on to win my medals so I think for Irish athletes to expose themselves to a local crowd where they know you because you can go away and you can race in Japan and all of these countries around the world and you can hide away to a degree.
“But when you are racing in Ireland and everyone knows who you are there is that added pressure and I think it is good for the Irish athletes to put themselves in that scenario.
“It was unreal. For me when I was race walking at a top-level I always appreciated that because we don’t have the depth here that I always wanted to showcase my event at the highest standard.
“So for me to bring walking to the Cork public at a really high standard… I brought over Eder Sanchez who was world medallist and one of the best in the world.
“I put myself up against him in Cork and there was no hiding place, the Cork sporting public can be very partisan.
“It was huge but he beat me by like 0.1 of a second, it was almost a dead heat. I broke an Irish record and it was brilliant.
“I went back another year and I won it at CIT I broke a world record of 35 and I beat a European medallist so it was brilliant for me to bring it to Cork.”
As memorable as those events were though, Heffernan admits his most cherished memory of the Cork City sports came at the 2014 event.
“I think the best memory for me was after I won the World Championship and I came back and raced here,” he said.
“I felt a massive pressure of having to perform in front of a home crowd and it was probably the biggest event that night and got the biggest reaction from the crowd.
“That was something that I was massively proud of, it was just lovely the admiration I got off the home crowd after winning a World championship and they all came out to watch me so I really enjoyed it that year.”
The 2019 Cork City Sports promises to be another significant event for Heffernan but rather than racing he has taken his place on the committee that helps organise the event.
“I’m looking forward to it,” insists the 41-year-old.
“This is the first year that I have been on the committee and like the first year with anything, it is more of a learning curve to see how it is run but I’m really excited for the event.
“There is going to be some incredible athletes here and I think it will be huge for kids of any sport to come out and see international athletes compete because it will broaden their horizons.
“That used to be a big thing for me when I was young and I used go to the Cork City Sports, you’re just looking at them in awe and it would motivate anyone that wants to get into sport.
“I think the public just need to come out and see them, there are some incredible athletes competing and I think it is going to make for a great night.
“People won’t be disappointed — no matter what sport they are interested in — if they get out and watch the athleticism of world-class athletes it will definitely open your mind up and motivate anybody to move on in sport.
“I would always say that the Cork City Sports is the biggest athletics event in the country. It has got the biggest tradition and it always has the biggest athletes, it is definitely the number one meet in the country.