By Will Downing
World champion race-walking star Rob Heffernan has announced his retirement from international athletics.
Heffernan took World Championship gold in Moscow in 2013, and was an Olympic bronze medallist from London 2012 and claimed European bronze from the 2010 Championships in Barcelona.
Those bronze medals, however, came via upgrades following later disqualifications from positive dope tests.
Neither of those late-awarded bronzes had become reality before the biggest moment of his career, when he finished top on the podium at the Luzhniki five years ago.
Using the same well-worn tactics that served him well throughout his career, Heffernan remained up near the front for the entire race and never fell lower than tenth on the course near the famous stadium, and then entered the Luzhniki to acclaim, on the 30th anniversary of Eamonn Coghlan’s 5000m triumph.
Only Heffernan, Coghlan, Sonia O’Sullivan and Olive Loughnane have taken World Athletics Championship gold in the 35-year history of the Championships – Loughnane’s again happening many years after the fact.
The Togher AC walker had crossed the line fourth at the 2010 Europeans in Barcelona and the 2012 Olympics, but the subsequent disqualifications of both those race winners – Stanislav Emelyanov and Sergey Kirdyapkin – saw Heffernan elevated into the medals.
The Barcelona bronze came in the shorter 20k walk, the Olympic third-place and world title were both at his preferred 50-kilometre distance.
Heffernan, who turned 40 in February, is the only Irish sportsperson to compete at five consecutive Olympic Games – David Wilkins competed in five also, across six Olympics from 1972-1992, and also medalled in Moscow (1980) – with the Corkman amassing 35 national titles during his glittering career.
Having remained at the top of his sport for a long time, Heffernan’s first two Olympic experiences weren’t so golden, finishing 28th as a 22-year-old at Sydney 2000, and fouling out in Athens four years later.
A creditable eighth-place at Beijing in 2008, was followed up by the London bronze and a sixth-place spot at Rio two years ago, and despite being the oldest competitor in the Irish team at last year’s World Championships in London, still produced the highest finish by an Irish athlete, in eighth place.
It kept Ireland from falling off the top-eight placing table at a World Championships for the first time since 2005.
Having been noticeable in the crowd for last week’s televised Cork City Sports, Heffernan is moving from full-time athletics into an entirely different field.
However, he is due to keep his hand in athletics through his race walking camp in Cork, and through consultancy with Athletics Ireland.
“After a lifetime spent dedicated to elite athletics I am delighted to be making the transition to a second career with Bank of Ireland,” Heffernan said in a statement today.
“Retiring from a professional sporting career can be a struggle for many athletes but I have been working with my management agent Derry McVeigh over the last year to ensure that I make this transition as smooth as possible.
Athletics Ireland’s newly-appointed chief executive Hamish Adams paid tribute: “Rob has represented Ireland on the world stage with distinction for over 20 years.
“Rob has spent his athletic career working hard, getting results and consistently performing under pressure whilst at the same he has given so much back to young and aspiring athletes in this country.
“Rob’s competitive career may be over, but we are delighted that his professional relationship with Athletics Ireland will endure and we will be announcing details of his new consultancy role with us in the coming weeks.”
Liam Sheedy, director at Bank of Ireland Munster said: “We are delighted to welcome Rob Heffernan to Bank of Ireland Munster as a Community & Youth Ambassador for Cork. Rob’s winning mentality and overall leadership is an excellent fit for Bank of Ireland as we strive to enable our Customers, Colleagues and Communities to thrive. Exciting times ahead and Rob will be a great addition to our Munster Team.”