Rob Heffernan keeps fire burning in quest for a fifth Olympics

European senior silver medallist by 17, retired by 22. 
Rob Heffernan keeps fire burning in quest for a fifth Olympics

Gráinne Murphy, who decided this week “to hang up my hat and oggles at international level”, certainly isn’t the first swimmer to peak so young and bow out so soon, but there was an inevitable sense of what more could have been had the New Ross woman’s career not been haunted by injury and illness after her breakthrough years.

She first came to national prominence in July of 2009 when winning three gold medals and one bronze at the Podoli swimming complex in Prague at the European Junior Swimming Championships.

No other Irish swimmer medalled, but her feats were still enough to earn Ireland sixth spot on the final table.

Russia and Great Britain finished eighth and ninth. Imagine that.

Gráinne Murphy
Gráinne Murphy

Thirteen months later and Murphy was at the Alfred Hajos Swimming Complex in Budapest, competing at the European Long Course Championship where she claimed that silver in the 1,500m freestyle final.

She took eight seconds off the Irish record doing it and followed it up with a pair of bronze medals at the continental Short Course championships in Eindhoven.

This was epochal stuff. Named alongside stars such as Katie Taylor, Tony McCoy, and Rory McIlroy for RTÉ’s Sports Star of the Year that December, she was described a few years later in this newspaper by Kieran Shannon as “the face of the (Swim Ireland) brand and the sport: clean, talented, hardworking”. She was. The London Olympics should have been her stage.

Instead, it stands now as the symbolic start of her decline in fortunes. She had already suffered a dip in form prior to qualifying due to shoulder surgery, but it was glandular fever that destroyed her Olympic dream in 2012, as she was miles off the pace in the 400m freestyle heats and opted against competing in her other events.

From there it was all downhill: the loss of her coach Ronald Claes, whose contract Swim Ireland never renewed, the downgrading of her high performance base in the University of Limerick, her move to France and, ultimately, the severe lung infection late last year that convinced her she would never make the starting line in Rio able to post her best.

“I have always maintained if I go to a major championship I want to be at the top of my game and in the mix,” she said this week.

It was her misfortune – and ours – she wasn’t in a position to do that more often and it was impossible not to think of Murphy again on Wednesday as attention turned to Rob Heffernan and his quest for a fifth Olympics.

Heffernan is fantastic company. He started out in the early 90s when sport science still came a distant second to the trusty magic sponge, but the Cork athlete is the prime example of how vital time and room to improve is in any sportsperson’s career.

Two decades in and he is still fine-tuning his preparation and making the imperceptible strides that separate the best from the rest.

What Murphy would have given for that opportunity.

If Murphy’s is the career that haunts us all – the impossibly bright star who found no favour with Lady Luck – then Heffernan is the unlikely hero who provides the yin to that yang.

Largely untracked at underage levels, unheralded for the majority of his career and yet a late bloomer who is now one of our finest ever athletes.

When he lines up in Rio this August he will be the first ever Irish athlete to compete in five Olympic Games so the obvious question was to ask this world champion— who, along with his wife and trainer Marian, balances the Spartan life of a long-distance walker with four kids — just how he has managed to wring so much out of his career for so long?

“It’s probably that I was so immature and mad when I was younger and didn’t understand a lot of stuff. I developed really late physically and then, on top of it, I was still very immature.

“When I look back at all the stuff and the results I got out of it, I think, ‘feckin’ hell, why didn’t somebody just a take hold of this fella and organise him, he was always going to be good’.

“When I look back at some of the stuff I was doing when I was 21-22: I set three or four Irish records in a week before (the 2000 Olympics in) Sydney over 35k where I nearly had to be pulled off the course.

“It was the fastest time in the world. At 3k the next day, after going out that night and having a few pints, I raced the next week and set another Irish record, back out having pints that night.”

Sixteen years later and he won’t let a drop of wine pass his lips for months on end but, in a way, he is younger than ever, running around the training pitch in Fota with his training partners Brendan Boyce who is nine years his junior and Alex Wright, who is 13 adrift of him.

“And it’s only when I come out of that environment and I get chatting to people in Cork that I realise my age,” he explained this week.

“I think you stay away from it, so I stay isolated and just get the work done. You have to keep the animal there.”

Hats off to the man, he’s done that and more.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob

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