Heffernan faces up to mighty ‘Paquillo’

ROBERT HEFFERNAN will be looking for the performance of a lifetime when he faces double European champion, Francisco Fernandez, in the 5,000m walk at the Irish Indoor Championships at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast tomorrow, with Gillian O’Sullivan also looking for something special.

Heffernan knows “Paquillo” could be unbeatable because he has just been at a training camp with him and the Russian walker, Ilya Markov, in Huolva, Spain.

Fernandez arrived there after setting a new Spanish record for the 5,000m walk at 18:39.58 when finishing third to Russians Alkesandr Yarqunkin and Ivan Kuznetsov at Yekaterinburg. Then he broke camp to beat Markov in a thrilling finish in San Fernando on February 3.

“They are both in savage form,” the Corkman insisted. “He had 18:39 in Russia and I had 19:40 in Nenagh.

“But, having said that, I am in real good form myself. I am surprised with my current form. I only need to do some fast races to improve my speed and I hope this will be one of them.”

He admitted that he is just happy to be back competing again after a prolonged spell of injury that required two hernia operations.

Since coming back late last year, he has qualified for this year’s World Championships in Osaka and is in the early stages of preparation for that.

“In two weeks time I will go to Spain for the Spanish Championships. I have a race on March 24 in China and I will go training at altitude in Morocco for three weeks. That will take me up to the European Cup in Leamington Spa in May.”

Gillian O’Sullivan, the 2003 world silver medallist and overall winner of racewalking’s Grand Prix, left Athens on the eve of the 2004 Olympics with a persistent injury and did not put her foot on the line again until last October, when she won a comeback 10k in the Isle of Man.

She has had two indoor races in Nenagh this year and will be renewing rivalry with Olive Loughnane, back after giving birth to her first baby, and Olive’s younger sister, Anne, who is a former world youth silver medallist and now the national champion.

“I am happy to be back competing again,” O’Sullivan said. “My two races in Nenagh worked out grand but when you are competing over 3k, it is neither here nor there.

“I have another race in the Isle of Man on March 10 and then my first 20k in Slovakia — a Grand Prix meet — on March 24.”

She is hoping to get the qualifying standard for the world championships in Osaka at that event and then get on with her preparations.

“I am taking everything as it comes right now,” she said. “That’s how it has to be. When you are out for so long, you have to learn to race again.”.

The team for the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham in two weeks’ time will be selected after the indoor championships at the Odyssey.

Already a number of athletes have qualifying standards and of those David Gillick, who set a new 400m indoor record recently, has opted for the 60m to fine-tune his preparations for the defence of the European 400m title.

Sprinter Anna Boyle will be favourite to retain her 60m title and should make the final in Birmingham.

Paul Hession, a 200m specialist, has qualified at 60m. While he has not yet achieved the qualifying standard, David McCarthy, 400m runner moving up to 800m, is likely to be named.

Orla Drumm (UCC) stepped up in distance to win the 1,500m title last year and last weekend underscored that performance by claiming a medal at the AAA championships with a new personal best for the distance.

Alistair Cragg will be continuing his preparations for his 3,000m title defence in the US but there should be an interesting 3,000m tomorrow night, when juniors David McCarthy and Craig Murphy compete against their more experienced seniors.

Last year David McCarthy ran a superb 3:48 for second place behind James Nolan in the 1,500m while young Craig Murphy from Togher AC in Cork will be heading into unchartered territory.

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