While race walking is a minority within a minority sport, all athletes admired and identified with the man who 10 years ago had no job, no money and a young daughter Meghan but decided to pursue his dream against the odds.
“I came from a very humble background,” said Heffernan who grew up in Douglas with one brother and three sisters.
He was a talented runner as a junior with Togher AC and he also broke 25 minutes for five miles but it was his natural race walking talent that brought him on to the international stage as he made his senior debut at the IAAF Race Walking Cup over 20 kilometres, finishing a lowly 70th in 1:32:14 in Mezidon-Canon in 1999.
His international debut didn’t meet with financial reward and one friend recalled when they were stopped by the Gardaí as he had no tax or insurance on his car — he couldn’t afford it. Thankfully he was allowed to go but his rocky road to success was only beginning.
Heffernan’s body also wasn’t compliant around this time and having had one operation on gilmore’s groin, he then had to get another one done on the opposite leg.
His career blossomed when he linked up with the godfather of race walking in the early noughties – Poland’s multiple Olympic champion Robert Korzeniowski.
“He was my hero,” said Heffernan who credits the Pole for making him far more professional in his approach to race walking. Now everything is down to a tee from garmin watches to heart rate monitors and lactate monitors.
His personal life also began to flourish when he met Marian Andrews who had a son Cathal (now aged eight) — two years younger than Meghan. Marian had started running at the age of seven and was a talented sprinter with Marian AC, winning county and provincial championships aplenty but the club disbanded and she joined Togher A.C. as a result.
And this was where the two would meet and begin another challenge for Heffernan. “I used to go down to the gym just so I could talk to her,” said Heffernan in his initial vain attempts to charm the sprinter.
His desire and persistence much like his race walking bore fruit. And the match proved a great success romantically and athletically with both competing in the London Olympics last year – Marian in the 4 by 400m relay.
It wasn’t always an upward curve and in 2011 Robert suffered a tragic blow on the eve of the world championships in Daegu when his mother, Maureen, tragically died. Heffernan withdrew but forced Marian, now his wife, to stay and compete while he went home to mourn.
It was with this selflessness that Marian put her own career on hold to support Robert as a coach and team member to help him achieve his ultimate aim this year — a global medal in Russia as physical reward for years of walking in excess of 160 kilometres a week.
It was a family mission for the Heffernans to achieve this dream of a Spartan existence. And it was one the athletics community felt part of because many have helped along the way. The likes of Dermot McDermott, Liam O’Reilly and Ray Flynn have been a number of those by his side holding drinks bottles, giving massage and pacing.
This year was fine-tuned and even closer knit between Marian and Robert in particular to achieve this goal along with Athletics Ireland physio Emma Gallivan.
So when the Togher man entered the Luzhniki stadium to win gold having endured 50km of intense race walking it wasn’t just his next of kin who felt part of the long sought after success but the whole athletics family.
“At home all year I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from people and everything was positive for me this year. That really helped because I had such a feeling of goodwill from everybody wanting me to do well in a genuine way ”
And I fed off that the last 10k – thinking ‘it’s not for you Rob, it’s for everyone, it’s for Ireland, it’s to lift the team and lift the sport’ and I was very proud of that.”