Robert gets set to walk tall

ROBERT HEFFERNAN is ready to deliver the performance of his lifetime in tomorrow morning’s (7.05 am Irish time) 20k walk, which gets the European Championships under way in Barcelona.

The 32-year-old Togher man has been mixing it in this company throughout his career and now his sports masseur, Liam O’Reilly, who has been overseeing his preparations for this assignment, insists he is ready to win a medal.

Valeriy Borchin (Russia), barely 22 years of age, became the youngest ever Olympic walking champion in Beijing and, after claiming another gold medal at last year’s world championships, he will be the raging hot favourite to complete the hat-trick.

Heffernan finished eighth in Beijing, where Ivano Brugnetti (Italy), fifth, and Francixco ‘Paco’ Fernandez, seventh, were the only other Europeans ahead of him. And when he finished a fading 15th in Berlin last year there were just five Europeans up front and one, Norwegian Erik Tysse, like Fernandez, is serving a term of suspension.

This time there are a couple of newcomers ranked ahead of him in the field. Alex Schwaxer (Italy) has done 78:24, another Russian, Stanislav Emelyanov, 79:43, as well as Johan Diniz (France) who won the 50k title in Gothenburg, with Heffernan fifth fastest for the season with 80:45, although he is ranked third from his debut at 50k.

“I know Borchin is virtually unbeatable but, in my opinion, Robert (Heffernan) is ready to win a medal here,” Liam O’Reilly insisted. “He is fine today, relaxing. We went to the course today, went through the race, went through all the scenarios. He likes to be out in front but he is going to be very clinical for the first half of the race.

“He has a big heart but he needs to walk intelligently for the first half and then let his heart take over.

“He is ready for this like no other race and if he has to go to the limit and beyond he can do it. He is thinking medal.

“Of course there is pressure, that is only natural. He just has to get the performance right.

“He has been in medal contention before. I would love to see a situation where, if a break comes and he is not on a card he can go with it and risk getting a card.”

He said the temperature could work in Heffernan’s favour as well, as yesterday morning was quite cool out on the course.

Olive Loughnane will have the early morning start on Wednesday as she continues to build on her performance in finishing seventh at the Beijing Olympics (87:45) which was sensational in that she completed the second half of the race in 43 mins 37 secs, which was the fastest of any athlete in the field where the first 12 were all inside the old Olympic record.

She came back last year to win the silver medal in Berlin and earn her place among legends of Irish athletics, which puts her among the favourites for Wednesday morning’s showpiece which will again feature the best race walkers in the world, with the exception of bronze medallist, Liu Hong from China.

She went to the Race Walking Challenge in La Coruna with a fall and a DQ behind her, but she was back to her best, finishing second to Beatriz Pascual (Spain) in 88:36 which was her fastest time since Beijing and she had Vera Santos, Ines Henriques and Hong Liu behind her. Pascual was sixth in Beijing and sixth again in Berlin.

“Everything has gone well,” she said. “Every year is different but I have not changed anything because it has worked for the last few years and you don’t fix what’s not broken. Unlike other events the walks in Europe are not much different from the world championships or Olympic Games – particularly for the women – we are only missing the Chinese, the Japanese and the Australians. From that point of view it is a big competition. I’ve dealt with it before and that helps. I don’t lack ambition. So far everything has gone well. I still have to work hard and to work at relaxing myself.”

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