Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Walkers punch above weight

(Caption: Robert Heffernan medal hope? Pic from Athletics Ireland website)
If athletics is a minority sport, then race walking is a minority within a minority. Yet race walking is our most successful athletics discipline in recent years, with a four race walkers qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. That's one quarter of the 16-strong team.
"And we could have had six," says Pat Ryan, team coach for Beijing. "The closest was Olive Louhgnane's Aine. She's still young and will get her chance again."
Younger walkers are already developing that winning habit. At the recent Schools International in Bedford, Fiona Dennehy was first in the girl's race, while Cian McManamon was second of the boys.
"We have a really good group, especially of girls, coming up. Race walking is not social - you're in there because you aspire to an Irish singlet. In England, race walks regularly get 90 to a hundred turning out and they have a great tradition. Yet they have only one walker qualifying for Beijing. We punch way above our weight," says Ryan.
Thanks to a squad system supervised by National Coach Michael Lane, any one with a talent for walking is picked up from an early age. "At schools and juvenile competitions, we talk to the athletes and invite them to come along to group training. That adds a social element to the sport, which is very important," says Ryan.
It means that the walkers, however far apart they may live, get to know each other. "Of the four times they might meet in a year, for only one of those times are they rivals. For the other three, they are training together and so helping and supporting each other. We think that is the key to our success." says Pat Ryan.
Like Gillian O'Sullivan and many others, Ryan was coached by Michael Lane, who for many people is "Mr Irish Walking". Lane, from Mullingar, not only set many Irish records but competed on the Irish team at the European Championships in Split. Later he looked after Jimmy McDonald, the man who put Irish race walking on the map when he finished sixth at the Barcelona Olympics of 1996.
Four years earlier, McDonald had qualified for Seoul, where he set an Irish record of 1:22.45 and finished 20th. Injuries hampered his career after Barcelona and although he competed at the Atlanta Games, he retired soon after.
"If you think of sprinting: no-one thought Ireland would every produce a world-class sprinter until Gary Ryan and Neil Ryan came along. Now we have Paul Hession - the fastest white guy in world. The same goes for race walking - we had John Kelly, who was based in the USA, competing in the 50k walk at Mexico in 1968, but Jimmy McDonald, training at home, opened the way for people like Deirdre Gallagher, Gillian O'Sullivan, who took a silver medal at the 2003 World Championships, and now Robert Heffernan."
A tradition was developing thanks to lots of hard work. Bobby O'Leary was following the example of his father Johnny in Clonliffe Harriers. Peirce O'Callaghan's father Bernie was a race walker and encouraged his son's early career. Sadly, serious illness forced an early retirement, although for some years, O'Callaghan junior coached his great friend Jamie Costin from Dungarvan.
Costin is arguably the best known exponent of heel and toe walking in this country after the horrific car crash nine days before the Athens Games when a lorry driving on the wrong side of the road crashed into his rental car. One of the vertebrae in his back literally exploded and he was fortunate not to sever his spinal cord.
In a triumph of pure will, Costin has qualified for the Beijing Games and recorded a personal best time of 3:53.30 at the Leamington Spa international earlier this year.
"Jimmy McDonald was my inspiration. Of the four who have qualified for Sydney three of us are around 30 - I'm 31, Robert Heffernan is 30 and Olive Loughnane is 32 and competing at her third Games. Colin Griffin is the baby at 25. We started training together very young and grew in confidence, encouraging each other and sticking together and maturity.
"It takes a long time for a race walker to reach top international standards but we are up there now. Robbie was sixth at last year's World Championships and both he and Olive were sixth at the World Race Walking Cup this year. When you have a few walkers competing at that kind of standard, it is only a matter of time before you medal."
When the current stars hang up its racing flats, a new generation is primed to take over. "Our training camps are usually organised from a Thursday to a Monday. On the Friday and Saturday the juniors and juveniles join in. Of course, they are not doing the same training, but they are in the environment and absorbing what is needed."
For the top walkers, training is a serious matter. Colin Griffin, whose mother Patricia was an Irish international distance runner, could possibly be the fittest athlete on the Beijing team. He covers 250km a week, looks after his core fitness and his diet and opted to move to Italy to train for Beijing. He will go in the 50km walk, which is tough enough without adding in the heat and possible smog of Beijing.
"There's a thin line between third place and eighth and one of us could make it. I was glad Colin took my record, and if he finished third and I'm tenth I'll be delighted," says Costin.

RULES
According to the rules of race walking, one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. When the foot hits the ground, the knee must be locked. Race walkers get two warnings before disqualification. Olympic distances are 20km for men and women and 50km for men only. Until 2000, women walked 10km.
IRISH WALKERS FOR BEIJING
Jamie Costin (West Waterford), 50km
Colin Griffin (Ballinamore), 50km
Robbie Heffernan (Togher), 20km
Olive Loughnane (Loughrea), 20km

IRISH OYMPIC WALKERS
John Kelly, 50km, 1968 dnf.
Jimmy McDonald, 20k, 1988 17th 1:22.45; 1992 6th 1:25.16; 1996 51st 1:32.11.
Bobby O'Leary, 20km, 1992 dsq.
Perri Williams, 10km, 1992 37th 54:53.
Deirdre Gallagher 10km walk, 1996 23rd, 45:47.
Gillian O'Sullivan, 20km, 2000 10th, 1:33.10
Robert Heffernan, 20km, 2000 28th, 1:26.04; 2004 dsq.
Olive Loughnane, 20km, 2000 35th 1:38.23; 2004 dsq.
Jamie Costin, 50km, 2000 38th, 4:24.22; 2004 dns.

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