“Bronze medallist in Europe words can’t express how proud I feel to be part of this Irish team”, Heffernan’s Instagram read, and that joy was etched all over his face to the point where he was almost overcome with emotion in the post-race interview.
Yet comparatively, this was by no means a highlight moment in his career, a lofty achievement no doubt but it pales in significance when contextualisingWorld and European winners’ medals as well as Olympic bronze.
At 39 years of age, you could be forgiven for thinking his best days were behind him. Wind back 12 months and Heffernan would have told you the 2016 Rio Olympics would be his last hurrah, so, as he looks towards the World Championships in London this August, why the change of heart?
It seems that highly commendable sixth-place finish in Rio buoyed him to keep doing what he does best, not because it proved he could still mix it with the best, but because the effect his performances continue to cast on the Irish public.
“I mean, people got such a kick and a positive feeling from it that I was thinking why should I stop there?” he says.
That’s typical of Heffernan. While other elite athletes choose the safe passage of bowing out on top and safeguarding their legacy, Heffernan’s benevolent altruism and passion for country and supporters alike are his primary motivators.
“In London I just want to be able to say thanks to people for all their support down through the years.”
And it seems the outpouring of appreciation donned on him last November when he finally received his 2012 Olympic bronze medal after being promoted to third place only reinforced his beliefs.
“It was a brilliant night and I couldn’t believe the size of the turnout and just made me really humbled to be able to do what I do.”
Heffernan too is quite cognisant of today’s high-speed technologically induced world where mental health issues are all too prevalent and sees his vocation as an outlet for optimism and inspiration and if his future endeavours can touch people only a fraction of how they have in the past, then it will all be worth it.
He has an insatiable desire in seeing people doing well and achieving their potential. He got just as much satisfaction out of Alex Wright finishing ahead of him (6th) in Prague as he did with his own performance back in 13th because he has, on top of everything else, taken on the mantle of coaching Wright as well as Brendan Boyce who himself narrowly missed out on a medal in the 50 km walk with a fourth place finish.
Similarly, when Wright broke Heffernan’s Irish 5km record in February he couldn’t have been happier, “sure that’s what it’s all about,” said a beaming Heffernan.
When you take into account Heffernan’s young family and funding slashed by a whopping 60% this year, it puts into perspective his incredible resolution and enthusiasm.
The same goes for this very article. Heffernan has sacrificed his whole afternoon for our interview, an afternoon he ordinarily reserves for a couple of hours sleep after an intense morning training session, just to help an eager journalist.
It’s all about the right attitude with Heffernan and he is quite opinionated and frustrated when it comes to the Irish sports psyche contentment of “just taking part”.
Heffernan feels many Irish sports persons and their respective governing bodies lack a winning mentality. “The happy just to be there attitude seems like an innate Irish characteristic and this filters from the top down,” he says.
He knows. He was there before. Having finished 28th in his first Olympics he thought he had done it all but soon realised much more could be achieved with the right temperament, a winning attitude and the proper infrastructure.
Since then he has battled the powers that be to be recognised and treated like his foreign counterparts. “How are our elite athletes supposed to compete on the global stage with a constant lack of finance and support?” he argues.
It’s the reason why he still hasn’t gotten his dream centre of excellence in Cork because we as a nation are not willing to back ourselves 110%.
“My dream is to set up a centre of excellence for walks in Cork. Currently we have no coaches or any development in this area and it’s an event that has given us so much success historically. It would only make sense for the sports council and athletics Ireland to get behind it, which they have already promised to do in the past.”
Although systematic Russian doping inflicted years of heartache on Heffernan he still sees many admirable qualities in the Russian approach to sport. While unconditionally repudiating doping in all its forms, he believes the Russians win-at-all-costs approach highlights a certain flaw in Ireland’s sporting mentality.
“Look Russia obviously overstepped the mark when they incorporated doping but in some ways you have to admire their mind-set. They left no stone unturned to win and doping aside they’ve put in place an absolute world class support system as well as talent identification systems whereby coaches go to schools to pick out talent and then try and coach and develop this talent over the years. This is making sure these athletes are identified at a young age and are then given every chance to achieve their potential.”
It’s a role he and wife Marian would love to do when he finally hangs up his shoes.
“They also have a centre where you can eat, drink, sleep and train in an ideal environment which itself develops a culture of excellence and a mind-set of excellence.”
Why aren’t we as a nation supporting our athletes with proper structures, preparation and finance? Why aren’t we giving them every opportunity to succeed? For Heffernan, it all boils down to mentality and breaking the mould that taking part is enough. It’s not.
If that glass ceiling is ever shattered then the support and finances will follow. Heffernan fought these battles throughout his career and still achieved a hell of a lot, one wonders what else he might have achieved had these structures been in place?
“I’ve always said Irish athletes are just as good as anyone and it was only when I began going abroad to training camps I realised this and realised they’re no different to me. The same goes for the young kids. If there was a place they could always see the likes of me, (Brendan) Boycey and Alex (Wright) they would realise we’re regular guys and it suddenly makes that dream seem closer and more achievable.”
We are now living in a golden age for Irish race walking and as Heffernan gets ready to sign off on a remarkable career, he wants nothing more than for others to follow in his footsteps by ensuring the proper systems are in place to reach those lofty heights and beyond.
That’s Heffernan in a nutshell, positive, grateful and forever thinking of others.
This article first appeared in Corks Evening Echo on 13th June 2017, click here to view.