How to create the next world champion? Who better to ask than our last one, Rob Heffernan, who since retirement has kept an oar deeply entrenched in the waters of Irish athletics.
Put simply, the teenage ranks here have never flowed with such talent, medals arriving in droves at recent underage championships. But Heffernan knows the vast chasm needed to bridge the gap to senior level, as does his wife Marian, an Olympian in 2012.
“It needs to be made clear to athletes: Athletics Ireland don’t have the funds to make you a professional athlete,” says Rob. “If you expect that from the association it’s not going to happen and kids can feel let down. It needs to be clear what can be done for them and what the life is for full-time, senior professional athletes.”
Heffernan believes aspiring champions need to expose themselves early to the lifestyle needed. “To get away with really good athletes abroad, to live in that environment and realise, ‘oh, this is what it’s about,’” he says.
He believes Athletics Ireland’s training camps serve that need for teenagers but that athletes in their early twenties with Olympic ambitions need to decide if they’re willing to commit.
“After that you need no distractions,” he says.
The association needs sponsors but at the end of the day, are we losing preparing people for war? Are we really preparing them to compete in majors? We probably don’t have that.
A five-time Olympian, Heffernan was world 50km race walk champion in 2013 and called time on his career last year — something he doesn’t regret in the slightest. “My last two years it was a drag,” he says. “I was working so hard and not getting the same return.”
During the World Championships in 2017 he says he “just didn’t care anymore.”
“It was the opposite to when I was young when I cared too much about everything. I was not one bit excited and I’m going, ‘you’ve done all the training, just shut up and deliver something because too many people have helped you.”
Yesterday he was in Santry along with Marian to launch the Irish Life Health Festival of Running, which will take place in Morton Stadium ahead of the national senior track and field championships on July 28. The event features a one-mile fun run for children and a 3km run in Santry Demesne.
“You’d hope it might ignite something and kids will watch the national championships after,” said Marian. “That’s where it came from with us — we grew up watching Sonia [O’Sullivan].”
Since stepping away from competition Rob has learned to appreciate the value of participation — the first step towards recruiting future champions and something which, these days, helps keep him mentally right.
“If I went three days without running I’d be in a bad place in my head and everything would be really negative,” says Heffernan, who runs 70km a week. “If I don’t get out and run I’d crack up. You have to make time to exercise.”