At some point between his fourth place finish on London’s Mall and the couple of quiet drinks he enjoyed in Bag O’Nail’s on the evening of August 11, 2012, Athletics Ireland team manager Patsy McGonagle turned to Rob Heffernan and issued the now prophetic words, ‘this ain’t over’.
Four years on — or 1,545 days to be exact — and the page has finally been turned on the men’s 50km walk from the London Olympics. Jared Tallent of Australia has his gold medal, China’s Si Tianfeng has his silver medal and, as of last night, Rob Heffernan has his bronze medal.
It was dead on 8pm when the large wooden doors at the back of the Concert Hall swung open and a lone piper led the man of the moment, shadowed by Lord Mayor of Cork Des Cahill, into the large auditorium.
The packed house promptly rose to their feet and there was to be no quick stride to the stage as well-wishers of all ages shook the hand of the soon-to-be Olympic medallist.
One young girl had brought along her painting of a bronze medal and offered her artwork to Rob as he covered the final few metres of what had been a very long walk to the finish line.
At the top of the red carpet was friend and mentor Liam O’Reilly, who’d soldiered with Heffernan for many a year.
There followed a long and emotional embrace.
Having taken his seat on stage, beside wife Marian, the wooden doors at the back of the room were pushed open for a second time. Into the hall came his two oldest children, Cathal and Megan, carrying the elusive piece of bronze.
The large screen closed in on Rob’s face and it was obvious that the enormity of the occasion was beginning to take its toll. And sure enough, no sooner had he been summoned to the small white podium in the centre of the stage, decorated by the five Olympic rings, that the tears began to flow.
The crowd were back on their feet as acting president of the OCI, Willie O’Brien, placed the bronze medal around his neck.
The tears continued.
At the age of 22, he’d travelled to Sydney to compete in his first Olympic Games. 16 years on and he finally had in his possession what he craved on each wet, winter’s morning that he pounded the roads around Fota. This is what it had all been for.
The tricolour was raised during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann and when the microphone was thrust in his direction, he quipped, “I better make a joke before I start crying again.”
Given how he rarely disappoints on race day, we should have known that he wouldn’t disappoint on this occasion either.
“When we started planning this, it was kinda like your 21st. You’re wondering is anyone going to turn up,” he smirked.
“You’d think I nearly planned to come fourth as this is so much better than what it would have been in London.”
He added: “I’m not able for all this emotion. It is incredible, it is unbelievable. I didn’t expect this reaction. I am so humbled. It is very hard to take in.
“I was down in Fota this morning and I’m carrying 7 or 8kg so I have friction burns between my legs. I know the value of this. To have an Olympic medal at the end of my Olympic career is incredible.
“Ever since I did sport, I’ve always been obsessed to win medals, at whatever level. To have an Olympic medal is a dream come true. It justifies my whole life’s work.”
Heffernan, though you wouldn’t have thought it, had been here before. When another Russian was found guilty for doping, the Togher native was retrospectively awarded bronze for the 20km at the 2010 European Championships. And with a world championship gold medal from 2013 to boot, the 38-year old is now the only Irish man with medals from the three majors of athletics. Ironically enough, the sole Irish woman to hold this honour is fellow Corkonian Sonia O’Sullivan. Although absent here, she sent a congratulatory email welcoming Rob to the Olympic medal-winners club.
“Rob,” she wrote, “is the greatest example of why you should never give up.”
Prior to his entrance, the crowd had been entertained with stories from a variety of sports stars past and present.
Derval O’Rourke remembered the three-quarter length leather jacket he wore during his time at Coláiste Chríost Rí, former middle distance runner Ray Flynn told the story from last year’s World championships in Beijing where Heffernan informed a hotel staff member that Flynn’s hair had fallen out overnight, while Modern Pentathlete Natalya Coyle, who shared an apartment with Heffernan in Rio this summer, recalled the 40 missed calls she had from him the day before the 50km walk.
“Rob wanted a razor from me so he could shave his head before competing. He said it would make him look scary in the eyes of his competitors. I had missed all these calls as I had been busy competing, but sure all Rob was concerned about was getting his head shaved!”
Also in attendance was 400m hurdler Tom Barr, himself a fourth place finisher in Rio. “To meet someone who has been in the game for so long and is still as motivated as he was on day one, it is inspiring to see that dedication. He is relaxed and such a normal guy. He has a realistic outlook on life and that he can then go out on race day and deliver the walk of his life is pretty special.”
Liam O’Reilly had referred to himself as Rob’s “second wife” and the racewalker made sure the evening didn’t go by without paying tribute to his first wife.
“Mar is brilliant and I couldn’t do it without all of the family. I love the [race- walking] life, but it can be very hard at times. Once the kids and Mar are happy, I’m content to keep going.”
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