Although the crowning of Ireland’s third world champion was not shown live on RTÉ, the whole of Rob Heffernan’s home suburb of Togher in Cork were up in the early hours to capture their man beating the Russians on their home patch.
Yesterday, his father Bobby and siblings Elton, Anthea, Lyndsey, and Rhonda and a gaggle of his nieces and nephews were taking in the enormity of what Rob had achieved.
Bobby said he barely slept the night before yesterday’s race and was “on edge” throughout. In fact, his nerves were so bad he left the house with his dogs on more than one occasion.
“I can’t get over it. I couldn’t even watch the end of the race, I had to go out the front door and walk up and down the road I was so excited. I was out the front door, the backdoor, the bloody side door. When I saw the Russians go away at the start I thought it might get away from him but Elton [Rob’s brother] turned around and said it was all about Robert’s tactics. When I came back to the house he was leading. It was just brilliant. Fantastic,” he said.
Bobby said the victory was a “dream come true” for his family and said Rob’s late mother was looking down on him as he became Ireland’s first world champion since Sonia O’Sullivan in 1995 and the first Irishman to claim a world gold since Eamonn Coghlan in 1983.
“Against all the odds, for a little Irishman to go out there and take on the world and to come through. It’s a dream come true for me, for my family, for my grandchildren and moreover for Maureen that is up in heaven — his mother. She’s up there looking down. I actually went down to the grave this morning with my two dogs. I’m just so happy. I can’t get over it,” he said.
Rob’s older sister, Rhonda, admitted she had been in tears most of the day, as had everyone who called her to say congratulations.
“There’s been tonnes of tears. Tonnes. I’ve been in tears all day. I just hear his voice on the radio and see him on the television and I just cry. I just am so proud that he’s done it after all the work and all the years. I won’t say his name, as he’d kill me, but I had a friend of ours call this morning and he just told us: ‘Will ye all stop crying because I’m driving down the link here and I’m in tears’. It means so much,” she said.
Just like her dad, Rhonda admitted her nerves were shot as she watched her brother take the lead in the race.
“I went to London last year and it was tough watching him. I just hate watching him. It was like that again this morning. When we thought he was on two yellows too, I just thought we can’t have a disqualification happen now, it just would have been awful, but he did it. He’s got his gold. I just can’t express in words how proud we are of him,” she said.
Rhonda said that having spoken to Rob, she knew the enormity of what he has done hasn’t hit him yet.
“It hasn’t hit him yet. I don’t think it will until he comes home. He told me he was in great shape for this championships so I knew he was ready. It’s brilliant and himself and Marian are just very normal, local people. There’s no hype with them at all. When I stop and see him winning I can’t believe it. It’s like ‘Oh my God, that’s my brother’,” she said.
As for a homecoming, Rob is expected back to his home in Douglas on Saturday. His family plan to put on a party to remember and his father said if Rob could track down a pub that serves a good pint of Beamish in Moscow, he will definitely be having one in celebration.
“It’s been a long road. Robert has been at this for 15 years and more. He’s had a lot of hard luck and injuries so I am so happy he’s got the reward,” he said.
After thousands of miles and years of hard luck, Cork’s Rob Heffernan finally stood on top of the podium as a world champion.
As his agent Derry McVeigh said yesterday, it has “been a long, long road” for the modest 50km walker and at 35 years old, he finally got his reward for all the heartbreak.
Heffernan’s career had been defined by bad luck. He first went to a World Championship in Canada in 2001 where he finished 14th in the 20km walk. He had finished 28th in the Sydney Olympics the year before.
Then came the years of hard luck. He failed to qualify for the World Championships in 2003 in France. Two years later, seeking redemption in the World Championships in Helsinki, he was devastated after being disqualified.
At the 2007 World Championships, he put in an excellent performance and finished sixth in the 20km walk. At the Beijing Olympics, he led at 14km before finishing eighth. His career appeared to be winding down when he managed just 15th at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin.
However, this proved to be far from the case as he achieved two agonising fourth place finishes in the 20km walk and the 50km walk at the European Championships in 2010.
It was heartbreak of a different kind at the next installment of the World Championships in Daegu in South Korea in 2011. Three days before the event was due to start, he received a call to say his mother had passed away. He pulled out of the championships and was on the next flight home.
Then came yet another agonising fourth place at the London Olympics last summer. All the more painful was that his time of three hours, 37 minutes, and 54 seconds — eight minutes quicker than his Irish record — would have earned him silver in Beijing and gold in every other Olympic 50km walk.
But in Moscow, Heffernan’s time finally arrived in style. His winning time was the fastest in the world in 2013 by more than three minutes. It was worth the wait.