When Rob Heffernan talks about high performance, it’s worth listening, because the newly-minted Olympic bronze medallist has a message for Irish athletes: You can win, and win clean.
Almost 16 years have passed since Heffernan made his Olympic debut in Sydney as a scrawny 22-year-old, finishing over seven minutes behind the winner, in 28th place. Since then, he’s learned, step by painful step, just what it takes to reach the summit.
“It can be done here,” he said. “If you look at what Olive [Loughnane] and Gillian [O’Sullivan] and myself achieved, the common denominator has been our unofficial system: Training really hard 11 months of the year.”
Hard, of course, is a vague description, but for Heffernan it meant something like this: Several years training abroad with the best race walking coaches and athletes in the world, understanding their approach to periodisation, their obsession with technique, their monastic lifestyle and, when he was old enough and wise enough, bringing that knowledge back home and trying to conquer the world from his base in Cork.
For Heffernan, people can reject the Russian system and all its doping sins if they like, but blindly chalking their success down to doping misses the point. When it comes to talent recruitment and professional coaching structures, they were — still are — light years ahead.
“I’d love to have the setup they have in Russia here in Ireland, but without the drugs,” he said. “Our anti-doping system is so strong, and this [Olympic medal] shows that if you do the right things, we can do it.”
In 2013, Heffernan stunned the Russians on their own turf, taking gold over 50km at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow and finishing over a minute ahead of silver medallist Mikhail Ryzhov. Given what is now known about the rampant doping at the home of Russian race walking in Saransk, the question has to be asked: How could a clean Heffernan beat a horde of walking pharmacies?
“The people who say I must be doping know nothing about my career,” said Heffernan. “I was sixth [at the 2007 World Championships] in Osaka, eighth [at the Olympics] in Beijing. These results haven’t come out of nowhere.”
His rise was certainly a steady one and, in an event like the 50km walk, posting a career-best performance at the age of 35 — as Heffernan did in Moscow — is a common occurrence.
He is also one of Ireland’s most drug-tested athletes. During 2013, he was tested 18 times before winning gold in Moscow, including three times during a training trip to Morocco and three times in a week while training in Spain.
He knows the testers will likely follow him to Morocco next week, where he begins a three-week training camp. No matter how much he protests, he knows whispers of scepticism will follow him, too.
“People say there’s doping in Morocco, and there probably is, but not where we are, not in our hotel room,” he said. “There’s also good roads, altitude, good weather, and it’s very cheap. You go to a nightclub in town, there’s going to be fellas in the cubicle next to you taking cocaine, but it doesn’t mean you do.”
Heffernan will spend 20 days in Morocco before travelling to Spain for an early-season race on April 24. After that, he’ll target the 20km race at the IAAF Race Walking Team Championships in Rome on May 8.
He will be joined there by Alex Wright and Brendan Boyce, two athletes he has coached for the last number of years. Boyce, in particular, has exemplified the Heffernan effect, consistently hacking chunks off his best time for 50km over the last five years.
He will be alongside Heffernan for his second Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which will be his coach’s fifth. Heffernan has come a long way from that scrawny kid he was in Sydney, but, despite his success, he’s under no illusions about the challenge ahead of him.
“It’s going to be very, very, very hard again,” he said. “But if I can get all my work done and go there mentally and physically ready to go to war, then I’ll definitely be in with a shout.”
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