As a nation, Ireland has only produced three track and field world champions. From Eamonn Coghlan's fist pumping celebtration in Helsinki in 1983 to Sonia O'Sullivan's turn of pace in Gothenburg in 1995 and finally to Rob Heffernan obliterating the field last summer in Moscow (video below). While Coghlan and O'Sullivan rightly sit in the pantheon of Irish sporting greats, Rob Heffernan's achievements deserve to be celebrated in the same fashion. Not only a world champion athlete, Heffernan is a world class individual, with an outgoing personality and an endearing attitude. This weekend, Heffernan competed in the legendary Millrose Games in New York City.
"I was delighted I made the trip. Just seeing the esteem in which guys like Ray Flynn, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan are held would make you proud to be Irish," said Heffernan.
Heffernan's arrival at the Millrose Games was greeted with the fanfare a world champion deserves. Columnist Elliott Denman announced that a "race walking legend is competing at this edition of the Millrose Games." A customary glance at the Millrose Games Hall of Fame highlights that only two nationalities have been inducted; the United States of America and Ireland.
"As I've traveled internationally, I have come to understand even more the depth of talent in Irish athletics," said Heffernan. "If we could match that level of talent with a suitable level of investment, we would win a lot more medals internationally."
It's not that Heffernan is complaining about his level of funding, though. He was adamant that he was never one to worry about his funding level but is staunch in his defense of his fellow athletes.
"In Ireland, we are quick to look at athletes getting “x” amount of money and then to ask why they aren't winning medals at major championships but it is about much more than just the Sports Council grant," Heffernan said. "If you look at the facilities that the Russian or American athletes train in, they are miles ahead of us. It really isn't fair to compare Irish athletes to other international athletes."
Despite this, he and a number of others are able to compete and win in an international arena. With the establishment of the Cork School of Race Walking, Heffernan is giving back to his sport and trying to bring walking to the masses. He has taken young Irish race walkers like Brendan Boyce – who showed his taste for the big time with personal best performances at London 2012 and then again in Moscow 2013 – Luke Hickey and Alex Wright under his tutelage, meaning his legacy to Irish athletics could be a lot bigger than just his gold medal.
Nobody reaches the top of their field without having an inbuilt will to win and an aggressive nature to push their body to its limits. At the Millrose Games, Heffernan finished second to Swede Andreas Gustafsson with both men troubling the world record time at the sprint distance of one mile.
"I mean, you do get disappointed when you don't win but ultimately it is about performing to the best of your abilities and I did that yesterday [at the Millrose Games]," said Heffernan.
Having been one of Ireland's most consistent performers at the recent editions of the Olympic Games, with a 28th place finish in Sydney followed by an 8th place finish in Beijing to an agonizing 4th place at London 2012, he will carry the weight of a nation's expectations on his shoulders to Rio. With the World Championship gold medal in his pocket, Rio 2016 will hopefully be the occasion where Heffernan fulfills his life's work and wins an Olympic medal for Ireland.
"Crossing the finish line in Moscow was just such a surreal experience and one that hasn't fully set in," Heffernan said. "You look up and see the Tricolors in the stands and realize that it is about much more than just your personal achievements. You are representing your country out there and there is just such a special feeling of pride that goes along with that."
Heffernan is proving his own theory that there are talented athletes in Ireland who can compete and win internationally.
"I suppose I have always been very self sufficient in terms of training and it is probably why I have seen success late in my career,' Heffernan said. "It has taken me a few years to figure it all out."
Heffernan and numerous other athletes perform remarkably on the international stage and are a credit to Ireland. Their success reflects favorably on the Irish nation and is a source of pride to its citizens. Despite the setbacks, such as his disqualification at the Athens Olympics, Heffernan has continued to strive for excellence and to reach the top of the mountain. He has done all this without fanfare.
"My only disappointment is that we haven't tried to develop the sport of walking on the back of what publicity my achievements have gotten," Heffernan said.