The big interview: Rob Heffernan on why Irish athletics needs to stop making excuses, how his wife is a saint and where his next step will take him  

The big interview: Rob Heffernan on why Irish athletics needs to stop making excuses, how his wife is a saint and where his next step will take him  
Ireland's Rob Heffernan with his wife Marian in Rio. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Rob Heffernan is shining on TV as his 40th birthday approach and talked to Éamonn Murphy about what he feels he can still offer Irish athletics, his growing love for coaching and the importance of the support of his wife Marian. 

Irish support in London for Rob Heffernan last August. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
Irish support in London for Rob Heffernan last August. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

He has enough energy to power the Christmas lights all across Cork city. His enthusiasm is infectious and the bubbly personality that you’ve seen before in interviews after events, on the ‘Late, Late Show’, which is a feature of Sunday nights on RTÉ’s ‘Dancing with the Stars’ this month, isn’t a front.

Heffernan’s passion for sport, and life, and his honesty, make him a dream to interview. A morning sipping coffees in Alchemy on Barrack Street flies by and it’s little wonder that last year the southsider published his book: ‘Walking Tall’. He’s walked the walk at World Championships and the Olympics and he can talk it too.

Apart from the coming weeks on our television screens as he seeks to emulate Aidan O’Mahony in winning ‘Dancing with the Stars’ — and the competitor in him means he’ll give it absolutely everything to fly the Rebel flag with pride – Heffernan isn’t certain what the future holds. He hasn’t officially retired from racewalking, though he was on the brink of it last August after coming eighth in the 50km walk in London, and could yet return to the European stage later in the summer. He’s lean and mean looking, and that’s before shaping up for the TV show, which suggests the body would be willing if the mind is.

Whether he opts to pull on the Irish singlet or not again might be up for debate but it’s clear that his boundless enthusiasm should be directed into coaching and improving Irish athletes. There was talk of turning Cork into a centre for producing elite racewalkers for a while now but the backing doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

“With the CIT facilities, the Mardyke, the Farm, the roads around and the really mild winters, we have everything you need already. If you put infrastructure, in terms of the right people, there’s scope to go up against anyone. I’d love to be involved in mentoring and coaching in a professional capacity.

“I’d love to have a Rob Heffernan Coaching Academy, to work with kids, in schools. I just love all that. I love watching kids play, hurling, GAA or whatever, and it’s not the winning or losing it’s seeing what they need to develop.

“Who gets afraid under pressure, who needs to be sharper off the mark, who loses concentration… it’s fascinating. If you can steer these talented players they could absolutely thrive.”

It’s fair to say the Heffernan’s is a sporting household. His wife Marian was a gifted sprinter in her own right and coached Rob to the podium, and now has her own business Marian Heffernan Sports Injuries. Rob’s daughter Meghan lives outside the city and has already shown great promise as a runner, while Cathal is a powerful presence on the field, whether that’s with St Michael’s, Blackrock or Ringmahon Rangers. Just to keep them busy, Rob and Marian’s daughters Tara and Regan are two and three.

He reckons Marian is a “saint” to put up with his busy schedule, even in semi-retirement, and that he’d be lost without her.

“I’ve wrecked Marian’s head because I’m so intense. You have to have some bit of balance because otherwise you burn out.”

The 39-year-old believes that’s one of the biggest issues faced across all sports – how to keep something in reserve for the end of a season.

“The energy that goes in early in the year, emotionally, physical and whether that’s GAA, soccer or athletics, that runs out. And they don’t understand that. How you can put so much into preseason and have so little left when it matters.

“Alex (Wright, fellow racewalker) was training at the start of our season, which would be November (2006), after an awful Olympics and he was dropping the group and I was thinking ‘oh no, you’ve 10 more months of this, don’t give it all away now…’

“Of course you’ve to put in the foundation but don’t get carried away. There’s no point in winning small races early in the year with no one around. It’s an Irish thing, all or nothing. I’m going to tip away and stay fit because if I’m really motivated there’s a possibility of winning a medal in Berlin next summer. I wanted to get on the OCI board and didn’t so I’m afraid to disconnect. This is my passion.”

Finding a vehicle to stay involved at the forefront of Irish athletics is the challenge now for Heffernan. You’d assume with a gold in the World Championships and an Olympic bronze on the shelf at home he’d be the ideal coach for the next wave of Irish athletes, but it doesn’t work like that.

As outgoing as Heffernan is, his straight-talking, with shades of Roy Keane and Ronan O’Gara, can rub people up the wrong way. Along with Wright and rookie Cian McManamon there was a team bronze at the European Walking Championships secured last summer. He wonders why this couldn’t be the launchpad for more.

“We won the team medals last year and I got a massive buzz. It was an incredible achievement but only if it’s built on. I know I’ve to drive this.

Cian McManamon, Rob Heffernan and Alex Wright, after winning bronze in the 20km European event. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cian McManamon, Rob Heffernan and Alex Wright, after winning bronze in the 20km European event. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

“I said this to the CEO of Athletics Ireland, John Foley. We have a team that with the right environment around it can do a job for the country. They don’t have to like me but personality shouldn’t come into it.

“When an athlete is getting ready for an event they’ve tunnel vision. Administrators need to appreciate that. We might offend someone but that’s because all you’re judged on is results, or should be any way, not being Mr Nice Guy.”

He didn’t endear himself to those in authority after an issue with gear last year.

“We’d CX Sport black gear, black. So we were posting up on social media ‘free t-shirt to the first person who tells us what country this is from!’ It was put out in jest but I was raging about getting wound up by other nations, they couldn’t understand why we didn’t have proper Irish gear.

“As if you win a medal and are going to be up on a podium in black gear. We’ve worked to get credibility on the international stage and we were there with the wrong gear. It’s amateur. It’s not about a prima donna, it’s being a professional.

“New Balance were gone and CX Sports had just started their deal but we weren’t informed of the sponsorship issue.”

A communication breakdown. The type that has dogged Irish sport for a long time. After the Pat Hickey debacle in Rio, the only way is up. You’d assume.

“The OCI only organise the Olympics side of things and the holding camp. It’s Sport Ireland who fund us and that’s really good, the support is excellent and there are tiers. The OCI aren’t actually involved with the athletes even though they’ve a huge profile. The dynamic is changing but we’ll have to see because actions speak louder than words.”

The argument made repeatedly for Ireland’s disappointments in athletics lately has been the uneven playing field, with doping rife. Heffernan’s Olympic bronze was only awarded in 2016 after he was upgraded from fourth on that basis. He prides himself on being a clean athlete, but doesn’t like easy excuses either.

“It’s terrible that the Russians doped and that culture is there but they were actually doing nine out of 10 things right and then they’ll dope to make sure they win. They’ve the best set-up, the most discipline, the best talent identification.

“You can outsmart them by peaking a few times a year. They can bang it out every week really. It’s not always down to taking drugs and it’s become a bit of an excuse in Ireland. There are always things you can do in sport to become better without cheating.

“If you think you’re a good hurler, can strike off your weak side but you’re a small bit slow off it, then you target that. If you’re being burned over 20 metres you work on it, you don’t use it as an excuse.

“You have to be honest with yourself and ask the hard questions. ‘Did I crack under pressure? Can I be more focused?’

Mark Carroll in Athens, 2004.
Mark Carroll in Athens, 2004.

“Look at Sonia O’Sullivan, Mark Carroll – who has a faster PB over 3k than Mo Farrah, two four-minute miles back to back, Marcus O’Sullivan, Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, the great ball players from Cork. Cork produced winners across all sports. There’s a softer culture now, society is softer. I know that.”

Softness certainly isn’t something you’d associate with Heffernan. He’s a self-made athlete, in a niche sport, who clawed his way towards medals. Does that come from his own grittier roots in Togher?

“Just because you come from a working-class background that doesn’t mean you’re tough. That’s bullshit. I see it all time from fellas. It’s all show this toughness. It’s about a work ethic. I know people who might get 600 points in their Leaving Cert and they’re tough, they prepare well, they don’t get emotionally evolved, they rise to every challenge.

“Darragh McElhinney (the 17-year-old runner from west Cork) is a good young fella. Really impressive. He’s respectful without trying, a fine character but a different animal when he’s on the track.

Darragh McElhinney. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Darragh McElhinney. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

“I can remember looking up to Mark Carroll when I was younger and I can see that rawness, the drive in his eyes, and then he’s changed when he’s off the track. He does it in the field of battle without putting on an act off it.

“I’ve tried all my life to be more educated. The tough fella is when you can hold your head and be strong and calculated in any competition. That’s tough.

“You have to have the attitude that if someone beats you they’re going to have to work their balls off. If they beat you, you’re going to respect them because they’re better than you, but they might not be better next year. You size them up when you respect them and see what you can learn from them. Respect beats fear.”

Rob takes great pride in having seen Cathal, who is very strong and tall for 13, develop into a promising teenager. He falls in to help with his teams at U13 and U14, and says there’s no shortage of prodigious hurlers, footballers and soccer players. Watching the team dynamic ebb and flow and the pressures of real life intrude are challenging.

“If you flog the lads on a Tuesday night you can’t expect them to do the same on a Thursday. They need their sleep too and you can’t guarantee they’ll get enough of that. Ideally you’ll have a part of training where you’re trick them into working on their concentration, making decisions when they’re tired.

“There will be ups and downs though, they’re growing and growing takes a lot of energy. You’ll be walking away from some games thinking ‘they’re useless, it’s not working’ and then another day you’ll be saying ‘they’re unreal, they’re going all the way here!’.

“You need reactive stuff in training, in a fun way. The smaller lads are always crafty out. I love that, they think differently to survive. If we could only get the big fellas to think like the smaller ones!

Cathal Heffernan and Gearóid O'Brien before a Cork hurling Primary Games match against Tipp. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cathal Heffernan and Gearóid O'Brien before a Cork hurling Primary Games match against Tipp. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

“The attributes in sport should make you a better person in life. That’s why you’ve standards.

“I don’t want to see guys who duck out of the hard stuff at training because they’ve a knock but they’ll jump in for the match at the end. Their talent will take them past 90% of the players they come up against but if they don’t have that character, forget it.”

Heffernan has always gone his own way in terms of training and preparation. What he firmly believes in is the holistic approach is best. Finding the angle that makes the individual prosper and letting it flow.

“Back in 2001 when I was in Poland they were on camp 178 days of the year and they incorporated their degrees into it. They didn’t know anything about nutritionists say because the food was supplied, there was no sports psychologist or guy doing the S&C because it was just part of the coaching set-up. It was organic.

“There’s too much talk now about the specialists. If it’s not holistically working, instead of being broken up, then it won’t prepare you to take on the best. If you’re training to compete at world level it should be: train, recover, train recover.”

There are prototypes of the perfect athlete in house all across Cork: the children who love sport.

“The ideal scenario. Alright they’ve school and homework or whatever but it is train with club, practise with the buddies up the green or out the front, the meals are laid on, and you go off to bed.

“There are no life decisions then about trying to work while you’re in college, deciding if you’re going out on a Saturday night. When they’re kids they can invest so much energy into sport. That’s the environment athletes need. Not to head up to Dublin for a cooking day or podiatrist being available for a day.”

Robert Heffernan after finishing fourth in 2012, which was upgraded to an Olympic medal after. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Robert Heffernan after finishing fourth in 2012, which was upgraded to an Olympic medal after. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Heffernan explains one of the former Olympians he learned the most from was Erki Nool, a gold medallist from Estonia at the 2000 Olympics, have learned from the bitter experience of misfiring four years earlier and only coming sixth. Nool came in for a two-day event 10 years ago and revealed the sacrifices he made to reach the summit of sporting Everest.

“He’s a decathlete, 6’ 4”, sallow skin, good-looking, an Adonis, like a Greek statue. He got up to speak the second day. He was self-actualised because he’d achieved it, incredible presence. ‘I listened to your people yesterday and I think I could give you some psychology.’

“He gave us examples of how to compete and get through anything. He said he had a complete anxiety attack (in 1996) and he got through it but finished sixth. He was smart. He knew he’d blown it because while sixth might sound great he was capable of far more.

“He put himself in those scenarios time and again before the next Olympics. He was a huge star in Estonia so he had to go away to train. ‘I had to get rid of people in my team that I liked because it wasn’t working. That’s tough but that’s what you do to win. Making yourself a better athlete is a business decision.’

“He was human. He explained he loved a beer but he had to sacrifice. I could relate to him so much. When I looked back I said ‘did I have enough speed? Did I have enough endurance?’ I think I did.

“I wondered ‘was I not smart enough? Was I happy to be the gombeen?’ You have to put stuff to one side. It can be painful. If you’re completely driven nothing else can come into your head when it matters.”

He might have suffered for his sport but not as much as his wife Marian.

He demanded more from her than he did from himself as she — having put her own athletic goals on hold for family — had to assist with his preparation and coaching.

“You look at what I had to do over the years in sport. Marian was working three jobs trying to keep us going. She was exploited really.

“Out in Morocco before the World Championships in Beijing, with two babies, following us around in a car for three lads doing 40k with drinks. That was three hours, in the sweltering heat, and she was doing the job of a professional. I said to her, ‘Mar you need to do it, we can’t compete with the Russians otherwise…’

“I don’t blame her when she looks at me and thinks how selfish I am because it is true.

“Marian went back studying after the Olympics and she never got a proper thank you or appreciation for what she did there for the Irish team and me. I appreciate her, even if I’m off to Dublin to train for ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

“Without what she did — no coaching badges but helped me win a World Championship medal — I wouldn’t have got where I did. She didn’t get the acknowledgement from Athletics Ireland. She should have been upskilled after, used as an asset —she’s a sprinter, looks great, very level at all times unlike me — to the sport in Ireland.”

In recent years with life after racewalking looming and his 40th on the horizon in February, he’s taken more and more from those he’s worked alongside. Last year it was Stuart Hogg, a former fitness coach at Glasgow Rangers who he knew through sprinter Paul Hession.

“He’s a dead straight, honest, disciplinarian. He’d worked with Paul Hession before. When you’re the king of your own castle you’re accountable to no one. He’s 76 years of age but he called it. Pulled me on everything and I needed that.

“I’d be more relaxed at the start of the season but he was demanding professional standards. He was looking at my life. He was telling me I’d to cut back coaching the young fellas. He went to Grand Canaria with me January, but he obviously wasn’t in Cork so it was hard.”

He was also able to tap into Bandon native Liam O’Reilly’s nous. He had been on board with Heffernan previously and was a key backroom figure for the Cork camogie team on the path to the 2017 All-Ireland.

“I went back to Liam and it’s a huge commitment. You’re hesitant to ask because he’s a volunteer like Marian was, and it wasn’t fair on his family. I was thinking about retiring and he really helped me coming in, got the focus back, and I was able to get through it.”

Sonia O'Sullivan with Rob Heffernan. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Sonia O'Sullivan with Rob Heffernan. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Having gone to five Olympics and kicked on from tourist to elite competitor to medallist, he has a wealth of knowledge to pass on.

Though he enjoys social media, he accepts it can be a distraction. But why not weaponise it?

“Tell everyone you did 40k at training when you only did 10k and they might end up getting injured trying to go one better. You can manage your social media, use that as part of your armoury.

“You look at the Cork hurlers last year. They brought in four or five fellas who are naturally really, really quick and — with the skill they had — they were outstanding.

“Over the next few years for those type of players it’ll be about balancing game-time and recovery, minimising injury. Seánie Maguire pulling his hamstring after going over to Preston and that was probably down to the shock of the extra work-load you’d have at that level.

“In athletics, you should never really be injured if you periodise your year to absorb the training. If the body is breaking down there’s something wrong with it. With a proper programme, weights, everything, you’re chipping away to sculpt it.

“That’s what Kilkenny did. You wouldn’t say they’re into sports science. They created the ultimate environment to breed winners on the hurling field. Now in the end they’d injuries to a couple of lads but it worked brilliantly.”

He vehemently argues that Cork should be as ruthlessly geared towards producing the same. In all sports.

“Why not have the same in Cork? Racewalking, hurling, football, soccer, any sport.

“If I wanted to be a hurler I’d set up shop as close to the training base, which is Páirc Uí Chaoimh now, live in Blackrock, look for a job that would best suit my training.

“Back in ’99, 2000 when I wanted to get to Sydney I took up a Sports Injury course in Stiofáin Naofa. It had other modules to get a diploma but I’d no interest in those. I just did the Sports Injury module so I could work in that area, and spent the rest of the time training and recovering in the sauna.

“I did that in sync, not even consciously, because I was just trying to survive at that time as a professional athlete.

“Blackrock got to the county final last season but Imokilly were better, small bit more class, slightly more athletic, but Blackrock have room to improve. Even if they don’t get back to win it they can be better next year. That’s what you focus on.”

No wonder then, that Heffernan isn’t slowing down.

Rob with Seán McCarthy, SoHo, a long-time supporter of his exploits, and Seán Óg.
Rob with Seán McCarthy, SoHo, a long-time supporter of his exploits, and Seán Óg.

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