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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 26 November 2020
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'It's a real example of, 'You can do anything'' - Irish greats unite to help kids walk tall through lockdown

The Robert Heffernan Race Walking Academy has been a huge success.

ROB HEFFERNAN SMILES, before the legendary Irish athlete introduces his newest venture.

Racewalking for kids through lockdown, brought to you by Heffernan, his former team-mate, opponent and lifelong friend, Pierce O’Callaghan, and co.

robpierce2 Rob Heffernan (065) and Pierce O'Callaghan (187) at the 1999 National Track & Field Championships. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

“Pierce was the last Irishman ever to beat me and he always reminds me of that,” as the Corkman says later on in the now-typical Zoom interview, and O’Callaghan laughs. “Make sure that goes in the headline, or at least the byline of the article!”

The pair’s energy and chemistry is on another level, their enthusiasm infectious on a dull Friday morning in the middle of lockdown 2.0. And this story, a much-needed good news one, is the perfect tonic through these difficult times.

“Obviously myself and Pierce have huge history, you know,” Heffernan begins, in conversation with The42.

“Going back how long… ’94?”

“150 years,” O’Callaghan grins, before Heffernan continues.

“And Dermot McDermott up in Sligo. He’s absolutely brilliant, like. Out of all of the people I’ve met throughout athletics in the world, the two boys are mad geniuses in different ways. Their energy is incredible. I think the stars aligned that the three of us came together with this, doing it in a volunteer role.

“It’s just something so positive, and it’s something pure because we all love the sport. We love athletics and obviously we love walking. It’s just grown.”

What started almost by accident in lockdown 1.0 has since exploded — the Robert Heffernan Race Walking Academy now boasts 150 participants from five countries in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And it’s growing weekly.

But back to the beginning first.

O’Callaghan — a father-of-four just like Heffernan — who lives in Tuam, county Galway, recruited McDermott to help with virtual inter-club team-based athletics challenges as the Covid-19 crisis hit and schools and sport shut down, and when a racewalking edition was in the works, Heffernan was called upon.

The challenge was straightforward: for kids to walk 100m in under 30 seconds, regardless of age or experience — many with lack thereof. Just walk. Videos would be sent in and Heffernan would pick the best 12, with all interaction done safely through parents and coaches.

rob pierce The Irish team at the 1999 World Cup in France. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

“Rob said, ‘You’ll get a little bit of coaching and you’ll get a free t-shirt at the end of it,’” sports historian O’Callaghan, who also sits on European Olympic committees, explains. “That was literally the carrot. We expected 20 or 30 kids to do it. 197 kids entered. So 197 videos on Rob’s phone, as you can imagine.

“For us, we were expecting leaning forward, running, the usual, I would say, kids having a bit of craic. We were shocked at actually how they took it seriously. There was this perceived value of Robert Heffernan, the Olympic medalist and World Champion, looking at my kid.”

From there, it organically grew to virtually coaching a group of 40 across Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo and Galway. Small pointers and pieces of feedback led to big improvements.

“The shock for us was the next video would come and the kid would have listened to everything and they’d be such a such a better athlete,” O’Callaghan notes.

“The enthusiasm was massive. We were bowled over by the energy and we just started bouncing off each other, as we do. The parents would send in a video and we’d both give feedback, and it was practically word-for-word, which was bizarre.”

Heffernan’s excitement shines through as he recalls that, and the family-orientated evening Zoom calls with 100 kids across the West of Ireland logging on.

“So from Rob Heffernan being the guy off TV, to Rob being the guy who’s at the end of the text message, now he’s actually on a call in my sitting room talking to my kid,” O’Callaghan adds. “The excitement that that generated in lockdown for everybody…”

And the excitement it generated as normality briefly returned was on another level again.

The plan was to organise a get-together when restrictions lifted, and that happened outside O’Callaghan’s house in June. The troops were rounded up, local media called, fencing was put up and down the garden and an inflatable arch in place as the finish line for “The Rob Heffernan Academy Final.” The hype was real, and it continued as a gesture of good-will.

kids Kids at the meet-up. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

“There’s never money transferring hands here,” O’Callaghan explains, with no entry fee applied, just the opportunity to buy a branded hoodie for €18. Every child got a race number and a medal to remember the occasion, presented by Heffernan and sealed with a photograph. A new skill learned, and that was that.

It was left that races might be organised in the autumn time, but then came lockdown number two. So the crew got planning once again.

Word had since spread about The Rob Heffernan Race Walking Academy, interest had gathered and coaches with groups around the country wanted to get involved.

“This academy sounds really prestigious,” O’Callaghan grins. “It’s named in honour of an Olympic medalist, the academy sounds like it’s a big building in UCD or whatever. At the end of the day, it was myself and Rob and Dermot just enthusing kids, that’s effectively what was.”

Back due to incredible demand, new members were added into the group and old ones who had returned to the iPad, Xbox, TV, TikTok (though the #robheffracewalkchallenge is climbing in views by the day) and Snapchat, brought back on track. A new challenge was set, and chapter two began as kids got to work away from their shut-down clubs.

“Bear in mind there’s eight-year-olds on this, and there’s up to 19,” O’Callaghan notes, stressing the developmental age demographic.

“We have to adapt to the eight year old whose parents wouldn’t even know the sport versus the 19-year-old who is trying to qualify for the world juniors and really wants the little bit of magic that they think Rob has, that he or she is missing.

“Word went to England, Canada and Australia, and they wanted to sign up as well. Again, the Rob Heffernan magic. Rob is very well-known, he’s an icon in the sport so people wanted the Robert Heffernan magic.”

rob A view of the logo. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

Not just from him alone, the level of expertise among the growing network of coaches is through the roof; five former athletes, all of whom have represented Ireland at the Olympic Games. 14 Olympics between them, though Heffernan has been at five himself. But still, that’s no mean feat with three of the coaches parents to children in the group.

And Heffernan, in return, has high praise for the “brilliant” O’Callaghan, who brings the best out of himself and McDermott with his coaching, organisation skills and business mind.

“I think the characters leading it are strong enough to bring whether it’s 20 or 30 coaches on board and make them feel a part of it, not have the sport excluded and being the small sport in little pockets around the country.

“Now in a scenario if we have a talented young walker who could potentially drop off, the pathway is there for him or her to either speak to me or Pierce about how to get to the top. Ultimately it’s left with that athlete: Do they want that lifestyle? But there’s no excuses anymore, we definitely have the know-how to direct the kids.”

Clearly so, with 115 kids undertaking a recent challenge and being provided with personal feedback, hungry to get fitter and faster week on week rather than complain about the current situation.

“What has kept us going in this is, well selfish reasons. For me, I’ve got three kids who love racewalking for a start so obviously that’s a great motivator for me,” O’Callaghan continues. “But the energy and enthusiasm we get from these people who we haven’t even met, and we don’t know.

“They’re GAA parents, they’re rugby parents, they’re Premiership parents, but they’re parents whose kid entered some challenge last March in lockdown, who was so good that Robert Heffernan selected them to be part of an academy.

“They loved it, they fell in love with it, they had a great positive experience at the end of June when there was no other sport happening in the country and now they’ve been reengaged in the second lockdown with no other sport happening.

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“The energy that myself and Rob get… it’s nearly a drug like because the enthusiasm is infectious. We bounce off each other, and then we’re enthusiastic back and then people who probably aren’t that enthusiastic feel the need to be more enthusiastic.”

robp Another snap from the 199 T&F championships. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

It’s the perfect chance to give back too, after their respective careers and all that the sport has given them. Even just the realisation of how important it is to get out and about and get moving, a necessity highlighted through fatherhood, and through the pandemic.

Heffernan nods. “I’d be very conscious of organisations who are not in control of what we’re meant to do with Covid, that this is an example, ‘Okay, we know what the rules are, we follow the rules and we’ve driven on and we’re doing something really positive.’

“You can work within new rules and new boundaries and create something really, really positive. It’s something that we’re massively proud of because we made no excuses about taking a step back and saying ‘Oh, we can’t do this.’

“We’ve actually created something bigger than what was ever done before. It’s brilliant because me and Pierce, we competed together when we were younger. It was always a healthy rivalry, you know. To come together to what he did in his career, I have so much respect for him. He’s been such a huge supporter of me and to come back in this way, sure you can hear his energy here. He doesn’t sleep, like.”

O’Callaghan laughs, but you can just tell that statement is true, with all involved putting endless hours of effort into this movement, while balancing the hard work out with play and devilment.

“This is just great,” Heffernan picks up. “I think it’s a it’s a real example of, ‘You can do anything.’ There’s always an alternative, things don’t have to be negative.

“The energy back off the kids is brilliant. Even my young fella, Cathal, he’s over in England at the moment, he’s going playing with Man United tomorrow. He’s asking me about it because Cathal tried racewalking.

“These kids don’t have to be racewalkers, but I think kids should be exposed to it and the positive attributes of the sport and the social side and the work ethic and everything, it will definitely stand to you in other areas of your life.

“For us to be able to give back, and give that to the kids, I think it will make them better in other sports if they decide to go on and do that as well.”

rob2 Heffernan coaching kids down in Galway. Source: Pierce O'Callaghan.

O’Callaghan jumps in, the stories from the past few months coming thick and fast, one brilliant anecdote ingrained in the mind of kids who “wouldn’t walk out of their way” before getting involved and they’re now loving every second.

“Had I said this to Rob last January, ‘Why don’t we set up this Whatsapp group and get parents to send us in videos of kids?’ I mean, we probably both would have said, ‘You’re bonkers. It’ll never work. Who’s going to do that? How are you going to reach out to them? How can we possibly coach an eight-year-old kid in Sligo from Cork or from Galway?’ We probably would have bought scoffed at the idea last January.”

But this is a new world we’re living in, with the end far from in sight and that’s the reality. “This isn’t even a four-month project in November, just to enthuse kids. Fundamentally, it’s a new way of doing business and interacting,” O’Callaghan adds, using the term business loosely and again stressing that there’s no financial element involved with all coaches on board in a voluntary capacity. 

Ultimately, It’s making racewalking attractive for kids too and certainly boosting the numbers as the recruitment drive continues across the country.

“Even in times gone past, if Rob went down to his local club in Cork, and I did the same in Galway, I would see that as fishing with a fishing rod if you’re trying to recruit walkers,” O’Callaghan nods.

“But what we’ve done with the virtual side of it is fishing with a fishing net, you can just cast that net so much further, people can get involved, the barriers to entry are so small because everybody wants to be part of the challenge.

“The buzz the kids get out of seeing their name on a piece of paper with Rob Heffernan’s name on it. They’re telling their friends, it’s now a cool thing to do.”

Heffenan agrees, and feels that everyone has the ability to give it a go.

“Even my wife Marian, she ran in the Olympics but Marian’s technique for race walking is brilliant and when I get her to do it for 100 metres, she’s as good as anyone in the world but runs out of endurance because it’s not in her makeup.

rob-heffernan-with-his-wife-marian-after-the-race Rob Heffernan and his wife Marian at Rio 2016. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“But she has such an understanding and a healthy knowledge of the sport, and it’s it’s like anything else. Kids should be introduced to all sports and we’d encourage the kids in the group to try every sport and do every sport.

“I think it’s better, it makes the kid more rounded and it gives them more of an understanding and makes them less ignorant to stuff that they don’t understand. So even to do that alone, it’s brilliant, you know?”

The benefits are endless; it’s keeping kids active as they learn a new skill, or improve an old one. It’s accessible and inclusive, a social outlet and welcoming for one and all with no pressure to travel or invest ridiculous amounts of time or money as we learn to live with Covid.

“We want to give people motivation and hope,” O’Callaghan adds. “Selfishly, as athletes, we want to grow the numbers participating in our sport, we want to improve their skills, we want to educate coaches.

“A big part is we’ve empowered parents. It’s ultimately parent-driven. Parents might have felt, ‘Oh, God, I don’t know anything about this sport,’ but we have given them equipment through our advice to the parents that they feel now that they can go out with a stopwatch and avideo phone and give the kids a bit of feedback in lockdown when they can’t meet up with their friends or meet up in a club.

“Another very important point is the value of a hero and a role model. Most Irish kids’ heroes play Premier League football and they’ll never meet them. This generation of Irish kids get to interact a real-live Irish sporting hero and role model and the bonus is he is interested in them and more so wants to help them.

“That’s ultimately the reason behind the success of the Robert Heffernan Race Walking Academy.”

The next step, assuming we go back to Level 2 restrictions after Christmas, will see coaching days in various provinces arranged so those involved in that capacity can continue to excellent work they’ve been doing virtually.

The academy has been split into teams so the challenges will continue, with the same level of interaction available online as the kids socialise and exercise in a positive environment.

pierce-ocallaghan Pierce O'Callaghan at the 2018 European Athletics Championships. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“That’s the great thing for us that we’ve actually had a really positive benefit on that amount of kids lives, and we’ve no doubt it will grow,” O’Callaghan concludes.

“It’s just up to Rob and myself to ensure that we have an infrastructure that can adapt to the number of people that want to be involved.

“That’s why we’re recruiting coaches and the attraction is actually quite good for coach we’re just saying, ‘Listen, just give feedback on Whatsapp, you don’t have to travel every weekend to Cork or Waterford or Kerry or wherever.’ They want to get involved.

“And ultimately, I suppose we all need a little bit of hope and motivation in these times as well. Life can very easily get on top of you but kids more so than ever, we’re old enough to realise this will pass, this isn’t a normal. If you’re a 10- or 11-year-old kid, you’ve had a full year your life now practically in lockdown.

“They need a little bit of hope and to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel and you know that’s certainly one of our big ambitions in what we’re doing.”

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Emma Duffy

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