Robert Heffernan said he wanted to create a “Rocky scenario” by beating the Russians in their own backyard and the journeyman duly matched Sylvester Stallone’s most outlandish plotline to win the 50km walk yesterday and become the first Irishman to win a world athletics gold medal in 30 years.
True, world and Olympic champion Sergey Kirdyapkin was missing after a late withdrawal, but the “Ivan Drago” role memorably played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, sat comfortably on the shoulders of Mikhail Ryzhov.
With Russia having won both 20km walks earlier in the week, Ryzhov and compatriot Ivan Noscov were expected to complete the hat-trick but 35-year-old Heffernan, who has spent most of his 13-year international career eyeing the podium from afar, had other ideas.
“I knew I was in the shape of my life. Physically, mentally, preparation-wise everything was right and I had no excuses,” he said after winning Ireland’s first world gold in 18 years.
“It was the Rocky scenario; I wanted to come here and beat the Russians in Moscow and that’s what I did.”
The Irishman, who withdrew before the 2011 race after his mother died suddenly, triumphed in three hours, 37.56 minutes, the fastest time of the year and over a minute clear of Ryzhov and two ahead of double Olympic silver medallist Jared Talent of Australia.
It was Ireland’s third-ever world gold following the 5,000 metres victories of Sonia O’Sullivan in 1995 and Eamonn Coghlan in 1983.
“It’s surreal, I can’t quite believe it – though I always thought I could do it,” he said. “When I came into the stadium and looked up at the big screen and saw myself it was like an out of body experience. Then I thought ‘hey, I’m looking good and I’m going to win this’ and was able to relax and really enjoy that final lap.”
Heffernan has worked long and hard with precious little reward in a backwater of the sport. Racing the 20km distance he was 28th in the Sydney Olympics, disqualified in Athens and eighth in Beijing.
It was a similar story in the World Championships and after finishing 15th in 2009 he had had just about enough of being an “also-walked”.
However, encouraged by his hero, Poland’s four-time Olympic gold medallist Robert Korzeniowski, he decided to carry on and came agonisingly close to a medal with two fourth place finishes in the 2010 European Championships.
He travelled to South Korea a year later fully confident of going at least one place better, only to get the shocking news of his mother’s death, leading to him returning home. Putting more emphasis on the longer distance, he finished ninth at the London Olympic 20km then took another fourth, having led early on, in the 50km.
“London was not a disappointment,” he insisted yesterday. “Everyone keeps telling me it was but I put in a great performance that just wasn’t good enough to win a medal on the day.”
Heffernan said his training and motivation since then had been ideal and he had to stop himself looking for excuses in the last few days before the race. “Everything had gone perfectly and I just had to say to myself ‘you have no excuses now, just go out there and execute the plan’. And that’s what I did”
As the sun began to beat down after cool, wet conditions at the start, Heffernan began to pile on the pressure after around 35km. Ryzhov was the only man to stay with him but he eventually fell back as the gap stretched to 20 seconds with 5km to go.
Heffernan also made a mental note to complete the 500 metres circuit-and-a-bit of the Luzhniki track after Russia’s Elena Lashmanova almost blew her victory by stopping prematurely in Tuesday’s 20km race. His vast experience ensured he made no mistake, however, despite the pain of one of the most excruciating events in the programme.
“The last 10km are like a crucifixion so all you can do is prepare mentally for it,” he said. “But I was able to enjoy it at the end. Two years ago was the saddest time of my life, an awful experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. That sort of thing helps you appreciate the good times.”