KIERAN SHANNON: Interview: Rob and Marian Heffernan are totally in sync

She won’t be there today. While her husband Rob powers it out this morning around the southern Slovakian spa town of Dudince in a time that should qualify him for next year’s Rio Olympics, Marian Heffernan will be at home in Douglas with the kids and expecting another one.

She’s only six weeks out now. She couldn’t risk the flight. But the rest of his journey the last 10 years or so, she’s been there virtually every step of the way.

The past two and a bit, she’s been his coach.

The first year he ended up top of the world, or at least champion of it, after one glorious morning in Moscow.

Last year after the European championships in Zurich it felt as if that world had caved in.

In August 2013 he seemed a made man. Twelve months later he was a broken one.

The only one there to help pick up the pieces was Marian and himself.

In a way that’s how their relationship has always worked.

When one was plagued with doubt and felt the dream was slipping away, the other was there to catch it and pick them back up.

They’d known each other since they were teens. “We grew up near each other and I always fancied her,” Rob has said.

He could look at her all day.

For her it was a bit different but whenever she did look back, it was up.

“I was in kind of awe of him,” she says. Shortly after she joined the athletics club out in Togher he’d competed at the Sydney Olympics.

Not long after the following Olympics in Athens then in which he’d been disqualified, she’d been out injured.

“I was 22, wondering if there was any point in keep going. But he said to me ‘No, you’re good. You could compete at major championships if you keep at it. Just get that injury sorted.’ He made me look at myself differently. He gave me confidence.”

A little while later, Rob was injured himself with a double Gilmore’s groin. It was Marian who drove him up to Dublin for the operation.

“I took a sickie from work,” she smiles. “It kind of kicked off from there. And ever since he’s roped me in other ways: houses, children and weddings.”

There’d be a funeral too that would further seal their bond. In August 2011 Rob’s mother Maureen suddenly passed away.

Rob and Marian were both in Daegu, South Korea, for the world championships at the time.

Naturally they both flew back to Cork. But before they even landed, Rob had convinced Marian once his mother was buried she had to fly back out to Daegu to run for the Irish 4x400m relay team.

Marian was sure Rob would have medalled for the first time in a major championship that time.

He wasn’t going to allow her goal and dream slip by too.

“He was distraught over his mother yet he could say, ‘Marian, you have to go back. Everything you’ve worked for this year, the past three years, can’t be for nought now.’ You nearly had to think differently. Not everybody is strong enough to do that.”

They were. She was. Three days later she’d leave Maureen Heffernan’s graveside to head straight back to the airport.

In Daegu she’d help the relay team run an Irish record and establish themselves as one of the top 12 in the world, in position to make the Olympics.

If she hadn’t gone back, they mightn’t have made it to London. She certainly wouldn’t have. Rob had called it right.

In London she’d fulfil her dream. After narrowly missing out on Beijing, it ticked every box for her. Rob raced in London too, brilliantly, finishing fourth, but for him there was more to do, more to give. He just needed more support. Like a full time coach, all to himself.

He knew just the person. Her own event might have been sprinting but they say you coach a person, not a sport.

She knew him better than anyone else.

“I think it took a massive pressure off him, that he could just concentrate on his sport and not worry about anyone else. The way athletics is here in this country, there are no professional coaches on the ground. In the lead up to London he had three different coaches in as many years. He had no one there for the day-to-day work and then he’d feel guilty asking people to take three weeks out of their lives to go on training camp with him. That used drain him.

“So, after London, we tried it out for a few months. When it came to January and deciding whether I was going back to work or not, I said ‘I’m doing this. It’s for us.’”

It’s been intense, for sure. While he still gets his programme from a technical coach in Spain, it’s Marian who is there on the road with Rob overseeing it and videoing it for Rob and his technical coach to review his technique.

She packs the cooler bag, gearbag as well as schoolbags so all he has to do at 9.30 is go out that door and train. With a degree in sports injuries, she’s often his physio and masseur too.

As she says, “I’m basically a one-stop shop for him. You nearly become everything to that one person. And they become nearly everything to you. You take on their injuries, their lives, everything. In our case it’s literally 24/7. But we’re still married. It’s worked.”

In 2013 it certainly did.

They were totally in sync: in training, on race day. If a race was at 8am, he’d wake at 5.30 to find she was already preparing and measuring his water. In Moscow it was cloudy that morning.

Midway through the race the clouds parted, the heat rose. When he came round looking for cooler water to be poured on his head she was ahead of him. A little while later he finished ahead of everyone else.

It would be wrong to say what followed was anti-climatic. It would be fair to say it was surreal.

Being interviewed by Michael Johnson, Mr Athletics himself, on BBC?

An open-top bus reception through Cork city centre?

“It was like we had hijacked someone else’s celebrations. And over the next few months we’d be in some unbelievable hotels and functions, but it wasn’t the real world. When it came time for Rob to go back training it was like, ‘This is us. This is what we do.’”

Except then in his first major championship back, he did something very unlike Rob Heffernan.

With over 10k still to go he quit.

He was still in sixth at the time but afterwards he’d tell reporters it was first or nothing for him and no way was he was going to catch or stop Youhann Diniz breaking the world record.

As Heffernan tried to make sense of it all there and then he wondered aloud if his attitude and motivation was wrong.

Keyboard warriors did. He was captain of the Irish team for those European championships. What kind of example was he to the rest of his team?

Or to all those kids he’d told in the post- Moscow speaking circuit to persevere, be the best they could be, that you didn’t have to finish first or medal to be a winner? Hadn’t he said about London that he didn’t finish fourth, “I won fourth”, digging in to pip Sergey Bakulin on the line? If winners never quit, what did Zurich now make him?

If it’s any consolation to those critics who quickly moved on to whatever else was on telly that day, no one asked those questions of Heffernan more than Heffernan himself over the following months.

“He questioned everything about himself. His character. His personality. After being so vocal after winning the worlds, he was asking, ‘Was I bluffing myself and everyone else into thinking I was this competitor, this person?’ Was what he had been saying what he really believed?

“It was a very, very tough time. He hit rock bottom. I won’t say he was depressed about it but he was very down about it. You’d have to say to him, ‘Rob, your kids are here. That’s your sport. You can’t let this affect other parts of your life.’ But he’d still be short with us. He didn’t mean it in a disrespectful way but he was giving out constantly.”

It turned out it was because there’d been an injury nagging at him constantly.

The few months either side of Zurich he’d an undiagnosed hernia. All along, his problem had been more physical than mental.

The doubt had come in because intuitively he knew something was off. That’s why he couldn’t go with Diniz in Zurich. Once he underwent the knife of a German surgeon in Birmingham back in October, it was, says Marian, as if he was reborn.

“It was an answer. Like, ‘I wasn’t imaging it. Something was wrong.’”

He had to accept though that winning the worlds had affected his mental focus. It’s not that he trained any less. It’s that he didn’t allow for recovery more. That’s what brought on the hernia.

On top of the 180k he was pushing out on the roads of Cork, he could have been travelling to Dublin three times a week for some gig.

He set up a walking academy in Cork and pushed that it be recognised as an official one. He was coaching most of its walkers, drawing up their programmes, looking after their injuries.

In being a Marian to everyone else he’d kind of forgotten why he’d needed a Marian of his own.

“I think he underestimated how much that would take out of him. I didn’t want him doing as much of all that stuff last year but he was genuinely happy about winning and wanted everyone to hear the message and get a boost from it but I think it kind of sidetracked him.”

This year it’s different. It’s a serious walking group he now has in Cork, with Brendan Boyce (who finished 16th in Zurich), Alex Wright (the London-born athlete who has now declared for Ireland) and promising local Luke Hickey all still on board, but as much Heffernan remains the daddy of them all, he no longer tries to be daddy to them all.

“Last year was a complete disaster but I think it has clarified things. He’s relearned you can’t have 10 focuses. Rob came back after his second Olympics and was labouring for his brother on a building site until he realised he’d have to give it everything.

“At the start of this year I said to him, ‘Rob, there’s a little pocket of me and you and our family and that’s the only thing that should affect you now. What you do for the next few years is not forever.’ All that other stuff will still be there for him because he’ll do well.”

‘Well’ might not necessarily be a medal at this year’s worlds in Beijing or next year’s Olympics in Rio. Post-Zurich made him reflect on and appreciate everything he was and did pre-Moscow, where he respected every major championship and every position he finished.

“Your man (Diniz) broke the world record by two minutes so Rob was never going to win that. So we had to realise, ‘Right, that could happen again and you could be fighting for ninth. You have to accept it and go back to what your strengths are. Ninth could be first for you that day.”

Deep down though, they feel he can do better than that. His technique is excellent, has been for five years now. Recently he’s been able to put in sessions he couldn’t have done even in 2012.

“We did a 10x2k session in Spain three weeks ago. When he did it before London he cried. He was nearly crippled from it. Now he’s more comfortable with it. He’s confident and happy and ready to compete. He’s come back understanding himself a bit better.”

Nearly as well as she knows him.

Marian Heffernan is an ambassador for the 2015 An Post Cycling Series, a five-event joint initiative with the Irish Sports Council which will take place each month from May to September. It caters for all ages, abilities and distances, from 10k to 160. Over 16,500 people participated last year, including Marian, who will again cycle the Cork leg this September, starting in Glengarriff and taking in the Ring of Kerry.


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