A FORTNIGHT after the Olympic Games in London four years ago, Brendan Boyce picked up his phone and sent a text that was akin to casting the die.
Boyce finished 29th – a result since upgraded to 26th because of disqualifications – in the men’s 50k race walk, setting a personal best time of 3 hours, 55 minutes and 1 second.
Rob Heffernan finished fourth in London, but has been retrospectively awarded the bronze medal.
A year later, Heffernan won Gold at the World Championships in Moscow.
By then, Heffernan was doubling up as Boyce’s mentor and coach.
Tomorrow, Heffernan and Boyce line up at the men’s 50k walk in Rio. There was a fine line in 2012 between a second Olympics and the real world for Boyce when he text Heffernan: ‘Would you be willing to coach me?’.
Heffernan took up the offer.
“I was at a massive crossroads after London,” Boyce says.
“I had trained in Leeds for three years prior to London.
“If Rob hadn’t taken me on, I’d have been back to Donegal with no support at all and would have filtered out of the sport. That was me after an Olympic Games where I was in the top 30 and I’d have been allowed just drift away. I’d have had no other option if Rob hadn’t taken me under his wing.”
Boyce is passionate about his sport.
His is a long and lonely path. 50 kilometres is just the tip of the iceberg. The Milford man hasn’t actually completed a competitive 50k race walk since March 2015, when he sealed qualification for Rio when finishing in 3:48:55, a new p.b, in Dudince, Slovakia.
He was disqualified at the World Championships last year in Beijing while on course to better that time.
He has done just four 50k events since London, finishing three of them in personal best times.[adrotate group=”76″]
“It’s come in quickly at the same time,” the Letterkenny AC man says.
“The years are flying in. There’s been a lot of developments in those years. I made a lot of mistakes after London and it was hard figuring out where I was in that first year after London.
“I was in training with the World Champion and getting mangled every day. It was hard to get used to that.
“Since Zurich in 2014, it’s been way more stable in the way I’ve trained. Since last November I’ve only missed two days of training all year.
“That’s the first time I’ve completed a whole year without any problems. It takes time to learn how to train properly and I feel that I’m in a position now where I can get close.”[adrotate group=”38″]
Last August in Beijing, Boyce was disqualified at 35k after receiving a third yellow card. His time was 2:39:50 at the time and he believes himself to have been in line for a position inside the top ten.
He skipped the hoopla of the Opening Ceremony in Rio and didn’t go to Brazil until last week.
The 29-year-old, who lives in Cork now near his training base, is in a good frame of mind as he readies himself for tomorrow’s date with destiny.
He says: “Beijing was really disappointing because I was in a good position at the time, on course for a top ten. I’m in better shape now, but then again everyone else will raise their game too.[adrotate group=”37″]
“If the race goes to plan and with the way training has gone, I can see myself coming in the top 12 or something in and around that.
“The 50k is a bit sort of making it up as you go along in that you can never tell what’ll happen especially over that last 10k.
“I’ve done three full cycles of 50k preparation since March. I don’t have the races to back that up, but I can gauge what I’m doing and I am really confident going to Rio that I can get a p.b.
“I don’t feel too much pressure. The national media will focus on Rob. If he goes and wins a medal or finishes 10th that’ll be the result that will be reported.
“I have pressure on myself to get the best possible performance. There isn’t outside pressure on me, but when you dedicate four years to something you don’t want to be faltering on the day.”[adrotate group=”46″]
Boyce has given himself every chance. For the month of June, he slept in an altitude tent, which reduces the amount of oxygen, encouraging blood cells to grow faster than normal.
For 11 weeks of the year, he’s been away on a training camp, the most recent in Spain at the end of July.
Boyce has been speaking to athletes from other nations and has concluded that Ireland stands a long way off its peers.
“I’ve spent three months away from Ireland in camp and there is no support for athletes who are trying to be professional,” he says regretfully.
“You get the grant at the start of the year and you just do whatever you do.
“It’s 12 grand a year. No way that would come close to cover you. I’ve to cover the costs in Cork and then have three months of a year between hotels and apartments. The expense of training properly is huge and would be impossible to survive on 12 grand.[adrotate group=”53″]
“We were with the Polish athletes in Cork before we flew out. The Poles were on camp for 170 days a year. They only get paid when they’re in camp. We need a system like that in Ireland. They get paid their living expenses when on camp. That would force people out of their comfort zones and get away on camps.
“There isn’t any support for athletes who are trying and protecting their trade, trying to improve themselves.”
His sport has been through the mill, particularly with the doping of the Russians, which led to their being removed from the records from London.
Boyce has strong views on the whole episode.
He says: “The level of conspiracy is more concerning that the doping. The biggest concern now for me as an athlete is the support, or the lack of it.[adrotate group=”70″]
“We put the cart before the horse in Ireland. We’re tested every so often and we get no support. I’ve been tested eight times this year and yet when I’m away on camp I get no support.”
He brings it all back to the turnover of athletes. From London, only Boyce, Heffernan, Tori Peña and Fionnuala McCormack survived to compete in Rio.
“Someone has to ask why that is and do something about it,” says Boyce.
He should know. After all, he was just a text message away from being classed as a ‘former athlete’ four years ago.
The men’s 50k race walk gets underway tomorrow at 12 noon.Tags: