An Olympic athlete, Rob Heffernan is well used to gruelling training sessions. Nothing though, prepared him for rehearsals for Dancing with the Stars, he tells Esther McCarthy.
Race walker, Rob Heffernan, has found a way through pain, discomfort, and mental barriers to win an Olympic medal. But cramp from hours of tangos and foxtrots is another kind of pain.
After eight hours of busting his moves for his forthcoming stint on Dancing With the Stars, even the super-fit Heffernan felt the effort in his legs.
“I went for something to eat, and I met (rugby star) Tomas O’Leary for dinner, and during dinner, in the bar, I got a massive cramp on my right hamstring. I had to lie down in the bar, on the ground, and really stretch my leg out. Then, my other hamstring cramped. Big Tomas lifted me up.”
It’s an indication both of how seriously he is taking Dancing With the Stars and of how fit and skilled you need to be to be a great dancer.
In the weeks before he makes his twinkle-toed debut on the top-rating show, he has immersed himself in dance, and is fascinated by the skill and athleticism involved.
“All of the dancers, they’re refreshing to be around, because they’re so driven. Even their movement and their skill, their passion for what they do — it brings me back to when I was at the height of my motivation for my athletics. It’s a real energy,” he said, during a break from rehearsals.
“With something like this, the movement and the skill, the strength to jump could cross over into so many sports.”
Does this mean he’ll soon be recommending the rumba on sports pitches? “You know what? The skill you’d need in your brain to move, to be on your toes, to jump, the strength, it’s fascinating.
“It’s only when you do something that you get more of a respect for it.
“It’s after making me feel younger again, you know. Just being motivated to do something new and fresh — learning something is brilliant.”
However, Heffernan says that he’s used to being ahead of the field, so he was daunted by taking on something he’d never tried before, but he encourages his children to try new things.
“You’d be so confident, because I’m the best at what I do. I feel like I’m completely stripped naked doing this. Even my body language has changed. I feel smaller and more… you’re very, very exposed.
“I thought: ‘No, I want to do it to overcome my fear’ and even if I’m going to be preaching to the kids about stuff, at least I can come back and say (I did it). It’s making me realise what the kids are going to go through, when they go into new environments, and trying something new.
“I’m even looking at group situations. We had a group rehearsal, yesterday, and, to be honest, I’m an awful messer. I’d be there thinking ‘when I’m coaching the football, I’d be giving out to the lads’. But you need a little time to relax and have a laugh, if you’re concentrating so much. It’s normal. Then, you can concentrate again, but you need to have fun, once you’re getting the job done.
“It’s going to make me a better coach, even listening to instructions from my dance partner. It’s bringing me back to when I was younger, when I was a young athlete, because I’m so eager to learn. It’s not being competitive, it’s just something new. I’m nearly obsessed with it.”
Dancing With the Stars viewers might be forgiven for thinking that celebrities just shimmy on to the stage and that it’s the professional dancers who do all the hard work.
But Heffernan’s experiences show that’s simply not the case, though he says years of tough athletics training regimes mean he was well able for the commitment.
“It’s no bother to me,” agreed the Corkman. “I’d be very disciplined that way and it wouldn’t cost me a thought. I’d do what needs to be done. I would do everything I can to be ok, to be able to perform. You can only do what you can do; then you can really enjoy something. It doesn’t matter if it’s dancing or sport. I’ll do what needs to be done, though I’m not saying I’m good at it!”
What he loves most about learning to dance is the hunger, both to learn and to achieve, that it has restored within him. He also loves how it differs to race-walking, in that he feels he is competing with himself, rather than against others.
After his eighth-place finish at this year’s World Championships, there was speculation that the 39-year- would hang up his shoes. But he says that he’s keeping an open mind about the future.
Still, the change in discipline, originally recommended by his wife, Marian, who is also a champion athlete, has been refreshing, he said.
“I’m not officially retired, yet. I needed a break. I’m still planning on going to altitude (training) in April, in Morocco. I’ve done so many years.
“I spoke to Marian about it and she said: ‘Your body needs something different. You need to rejuvenate again, you need something new.’ So, this has tied in perfectly with it,” Heffernan says.
Marian, a 400-metre runner who competed for Ireland at the London Olympics, encouraged her husband to take part in Dancing With the Stars. The couple have two toddlers, Regan and Tara, and a twelve-year-old son, Cathal. Rob also has a teenage daughter, Megan, from a previous relationship.
Marian is used to her husband’s mischievous sense of humour. When she was giving birth to their second child, he tweeted about the inconvenience of his wife’s waters breaking during a hard training session.
“She knows me!” he laughed. “Marian’s waters broke and I’m in the middle of doing my first, hard session that year. I remember, there’s still a part of your head going: ‘I have to get the training done, first.’ Then, it’s like: ‘Snap out of it, Rob.’ Even going to the hospital that day, the nurse was like: ‘She’s going to be here for hours. You can go back out and finish your training.’
“Marian wanted me to do this and the kids are having a laugh, because I’m going home now and I’m dancing with the babies around the kitchen. They love it.”
It’s little surprise that the Heffernans’ children are sporty, too. “They’re very good at sport. Megan has won national cross country medals and she’s playing soccer. She’s really, really talented. My small fella’s playing football and he played soccer with Cork, and hurling with Cork, last year.”
While he encourages his children to be active and healthy, he said he would never push them into taking on a sport. “Unless that drive comes when you’re older, it doesn’t matter how talented you are. That has to come from you, it can’t come from anybody else. You can guide them, but it’s up to them. You can’t make them,” he says.
“Athletics is a very tough sport. I wouldn’t push one of my kids into it, because it’s a tough life. You have to really love it and really want it,” Heffernan says.
There are rewards, too. Last year, he was overjoyed to be awarded his Olympic bronze medal for the 2012 games, after the Russian athlete who finished first subsequently failed a doping test. But he remains frustrated at the lack of TV access to live athletics here, which he feels would encourage more people to participate.
“We need it, because kids are so influenced by what they see on TV. I know it first-hand, because, with race-walking, which wouldn’t be a ‘sexy’ sport, when I did well at it, I was at cross-country races and you’d see kids trying to race-walk around cross-country courses.
There was no avenue to develop that, and that was something that really, really ate away at me. I can see it when I’m in other countries, how big the sport can be, and we didn’t capitalise on that. Athletics needs to be pushed all the time.”
Dancing with the Stars returns to RTÉ in January
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