In the end, after one of the most decorated careers in Irish sport, it wasn’t any one thing that sent Rob Heffernan on the long road to retirement.
It was a confluence of factors: A steady erosion of his will; the dwindling of his physical powers; the intrusion of life itself; and a perspective, as he entered his 40s, that the time was right to walk away.
As he puts it: “Age catches up with everybody.”
Olympic bronze medallist, world champion, five-time Olympian — whatever way you break down his career it’s one rivalled by only a handful in the annals of Irish athletics.
In truth, his long goodbye began in London last year, Heffernan finishing eighth in the World Championships and declaring afterwards that it was likely his last race.
On paper it was a good result but I knew I wasn’t the same, I needed a break. The last few years were tough, I was training really hard and little by little I felt it was dwindling and the animal was gone — the same rawness, the same desire.
He signed up for RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars in the winter, a great opportunity to boost his profile, bank some cash and detach himself from the obsession that enveloped his existence for the previous 20 years.
In the afternoons, he’d still get out to churn the miles, leaving the door open for a possible tilt at the European Championships in Berlin, but in the spring, when the time came to enter the block of brutal training that would be required, it just no longer made sense.
“I always said once I felt there was no more room for improvement I was never going to be a journeyman. I could have hung on and collected my full grant and still gone to the Olympics in 2020, but I said I’m not going to be that.
The priorities started changing. It wasn’t life and death, it wasn’t the be all and end all and I wanted to spend more time with my family.
Throughout his career, Heffernan demanded absurd levels of commitment and professionalism not only from himself, but those around him, including wife Marian, herself an Olympian in 2012. In the end, that’s not a sustainable way to live a happy life.
“It was causing massive strain on relationships when you’re putting pressure on people who are volunteers. When you’re completely driven you’re blind to that as an athlete and you’re completely selfish.
“You start realising that a little bit more the last few years; you’re putting strains on other areas of your life. You can’t be as selfish as you were and when the results aren’t that good you can’t justify it.”
So what next?
Heffernan will take up a position with Bank of Ireland as a retail banking ambassador in the Munster region, and he’s also in talks with Athletics Ireland CEO Hamish Adams about passing on his vast experience to the next generation.
Hamish seems really good, really positive. He’s been involved in high-performance sport with the rowers and rugby players and he has more of a grasp of what it takes. We’re still talking at the moment but I’ll be involved in some capacity with Athletics Ireland.
When he looks back, the memories that flood his mind first are the two most of us associate with Heffernan: The Olympic bronze medal in 2012, which he was awarded in 2016 after race winner Sergey Kirdyapkin was disqualified for failing a doping test; and of course that magical morning in Moscow in August 2013, when Heffernan walked to a world title over 50km.
“Two magical days,” he says. “Moscow was a reward for my whole life; you think of all the missed days and the tragedy stories of finishing fourth with fellas doping in front of me, and to get it right and get the year perfect, it was the pinnacle of everything.”
He tried to replicate that season ever since, the stars never quite aligning in the same way, though he still backed it up with fifth in the world in 2015, sixth at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and his final bow last year in London, a typically hard-fought eighth.
In recent weeks, Heffernan has followed the success of young Irish athletes and it has filled him with confidence, knowing what could replace him.
“Athletics is in a good state now and I think it’s good I’ve moved on, I don’t think it’s good for the sport to be relying on someone my age for positivity,” he says. “The athletes coming through are all fresh and the sport is revitalised. It’s out with the old, in with the new.”