It’s best not to call it a comeback, for Rob Heffernan never really left, but despite the ravages of time clearly taking a toll, the 39-year-old hasn’t shut the door on his career just yet.
Yesterday afternoon, Heffernan was crowned athlete of the year at the Irish Life Health National Athletics Awards, and though he will be dancing to a very different rhythm than race walking in the coming months, he revealed he is still eyeing a tilt at next summer’s European Championships.
“I’m 39 but I’m still up there and I feel if I can stay injury-free and motivated that I can still win a medal,” he said. “It’s been a hard few years, emotionally and physically, and I need to see how I feel, go to altitude in April and see how things are.”
In recent weeks, Heffernan has been racking up four hours a day while training for a very different pursuit, details of which will be announced tomorrow, but safe to say he’ll be a familiar face on Irish TV over the coming months as he embarks on his new adventure. After the World Championships in London earlier this year, where he came eighth in the 50km event, Heffernan was in dire need of a change after two decades at the top tier of race walking.
“I just needed a break from the whole misery of it,” he said. “I need to do something new for a while because it’s not going to go on forever and I can’t be this one-dimensional person. I need to take myself out of my comfort zone.”
However, while keeping in step with his new routine, Heffernan has maintained his aerobic fitness, logging 10-15km of running or race-walking each day along with building strength in the gym, which, he hopes, will allow him a smooth transition back to competitive race walking ahead of the summer.
“I definitely need to do something different,” he said. “When you’re in the athletics bubble, you’re always trying to move forward, always trying to understand what you did wrong and what you can do better, and it’s very antisocial. I’m still training and keeping fit, but my new approach is going to really invigorate me. My body is still replenishing as it’s not doing 100 miles a week, and I’m recovering mentally too.”
And while Heffernan made sure his career would not be spoken of in the past tense, the girl many believe may be the future of Irish athletics received her award for U20 athlete of the year. Gina Akpe-Moses took the European U20 100m title in Italy earlier this year, and she needed all her speed to arrive in Santry on time yesterday — she came straight from the track in her training gear after misreading the start time on the invite.
The 18-year-old will be eligible for the World U20 Championships in Finland next summer, where the European champion will pit her speed against the world’s best. “Training is going very well, it’s a lot of hard work but I’m stronger,” she said. “World Juniors is the main event, hopefully it’ll be as good as the Europeans, maybe better.”
Irish 1500m and mile record holder Ray Flynn was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the Longford man, who is currently one of the world’s foremost athletics agents, reflected fondly on his career. “I was privileged to run in a magical time in athletics against many of the world’s greatest athletes, and many of them happened to be Irish,” he said. “It’s incredible to be joining the great athletes in the hall of fame.”
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