Barbara O’Connell talks to Cork race walker Luke Hickey who is off to Russia in May to compete in the Junior World Championships.
The following appeared in the print edition of the Evening Echo, Friday 16 March 2012.
It’s 4:30 am on a Monday morning. Everything at the Lough is as it should be. The odd bird fluttering, a few swans hissing in the bushes, the laughter of a courting couple on their way home from a late night out and the occasional taxi passes by.
Papers are blowing in the wind, yet somebody walks briskly around the Lough, the pitter-patter of quickly-paced feet, followed closely by a cyclist.
A closer examination shows it’s a youngster in a tracksuit followed by a lady on a bike. “Yes, that lady was my mom,” says Luke Hickey, from Deer Park, who has just qualified for the World Cup of Walking in Russia following his win over Irish number-one ranked walker Evan Lynch in an Open 10K event in Claremorris.
“I needed to fit two training sessions in that day, and with having a long day in school this particular day, I decided my only option was to fit in a session before I started school,” says the fifth year student at Coláiste Chríost Rí.
“I got up at 4 am and headed to the Lough at 4:30 am.
“Being the baby of the house my mom (Mary Rose) felt this was the middle of the night, and definitely not a time for her son to be heading out alone, so she cycled laps of the Lough to keep me company as I walked for just under two hours.”
The Leevale athlete has shown increased dedication and commitment to his sport, especially in the past few months, and his form in race walking has improved leaps and bounds, thanks no doubt to the coaching expertise of Olympic walker Robert Heffernan.
“Luke is a fantastic guy. He has a great attitude towards training and he has such great potential,” Heffernan said. Luke met Heffernan last summer while doing a 5K in Castleisland during the club’s league event with Leevale.
Following the race they got chatting and the Olympian invited Luke to train with him the following morning.
Keep in mind, it was summer, and Luke was getting used to the idea of a midday lie-in. “I’ll always remember my first few days training with Rob, probably because Rob won’t allow me forget too easily.
“I slept it in on the first morning, and on the second mornin I arrived at the wrong place I was due to meet Rob.
Luckily for me, Rob happened to pass by where I had been waiting.”
“I had told Liam O’Reilly (Heffernan’s trainer) earlier that morning that if Luke hadn’t turned up for the second day in a row, that, that was it.
“I wouldn’t have given him another chance,” says Heffernan.
On their first morning training together, Luke recalls how Heffernan flapped at his arm and told him he was too fat and needed to lose weight if he was serious about becoming an athlete.
“I was so insulted,” Hickey says. “But I went on to lose one and a half stone of excess fat in the first two weeks of training.”
Heffernan admits he wasn’t very impressed with how Luke appeared at that now infamous first training session.
“GAA shorts and an iPod? How can this guy take athletics seriously?” thought Heffernan. He was proved wrong though.
Luke, however, showed his commitment in the next few weeks.
“I had no previous walking experience in terms of distance before I met Rob.
“I basically worked on keeping fit for races with my GAA club Nemo and soccer club Kilreen.
“Prior to a race I prepared by concentrating on technique on how to pass a race.
“It wasn’t until I trained with Rob that I began to work on distance.”
A few weeks into training, Rob invited Luke to train with him in Spain.
“This was a fantastic experience for me, and probably the moment I realised how serious I was about walking.
“Here I was out walking on the roads in Spain with Rob and Spanish Olympic medal winner, Paco Fernandez.
“I really was in great company, and I savoured every minute of it,” says Hickey.
“When I arrived home from Spain, I had 12 hours at home before I had to leave again for Cardiff to compete in the Tailteann Games.
“I came second in that race, beating the third placed walker by 200ths of a second, the closest finish of the day.
“Winter had arrived and I found training a little more difficult as Rob was away in Australia, so I had to train by myself. This was definitely a test for me, Getting out there was tough, but once I got started, it was half the battle.
“Rob was excellent to me He gave me training programs through Skype regularly. “I spent most of’ my days training in the Lee Fields, Little Island and CIT, or basically any good long path I could find.
“I did have great help from my sister Katie, who drove me to training and races which I greatly appreciate.”
Luke’s love for walking kicked off from school. He had always loved athletics and his main event was hurdling, admitting that he wasn’t fast enough for the 100m sprint. However, his school were looking for someone to represent them in the walking race so Luke thought to himself that this could be an easy medal and decided to give it a go.
“I came third in the South Munsters, and therefore qualified for the All-Irelands, in which I also came third in.
“This meant I was now part of the schools 4×100 relay team, and the walking race.
“This was an unusual combination to say the least.
“I was coming third in the 3k with only 100m to go, when I was pulled over and disqualified.
“I was heartbroken to be honest. Unfortunately though there was more heartache to come and I went on to suffer two more disqualifications, one of which happened after I had actually won the schools All-Ireland, only to be told after the race that I had been disqualified for not getting the correct Knee Lock.
“These heartaches though, helped me to become more determined.”
Showing his determination not to let this setback upset him Luke competed in the club finals and had his shoe kicked off with six and a half laps to go. He carried on and finished the race, resulting in two huge blisters and being unable to compete in the following day’s race, but to finish that race meant more to Luke.
Recently Luke was In action in the Open 10K event in Claremorris. He had a huge win with a 30 second margin over second placed Evan Lynch of Clonmel.
“After 7K Evan started to pull back a little I genuinely was worried about him as this was not
his usual form.
“When be assured me he was fine, I thought to myself that this could be my day, that I could beat him for the first time ever.
“In the last 1000m I had less than five minutes to go, I knew I could do it, but at the same time I was experiencing so many mixed emotions.
“I managed to win the race and I can honestly say it was the proudest moment of my athletics career to date.”
This win qualified Luke for the World Cup which will be held in Russia in May. Luke states that he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for Rob and Rob’s coach Liam O’Reilly.
“Liam is my physio and I do a lot of circuits with him.
“He is a fantastic guy. Rob puts a structure together for me and shows me the life you need to live to become a great athlete. I wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for both of those men.
“Not everyday you get to walk and with one of the best walkers in the world.”
Luke has many ambitions among them, he wants to get to the World Juniors and compete with the best.
“To compete in the World Juniors next year is definitely my personal goal, and locally, my big ambition also is to set a new Irish schools record in the 3K, which is currently held by Leitrim walker Colin Griffin.
“I know next year will be a tough year to try and achieve both of these goals as I will be doing my Leaving Cert, and hope to go on and do psychology or sports science in college.
“However, my plan is to get in as much training as possible this year, and make things a little easier for me next year.”
Luke has enjoyed the last 12 months so much, but also states that he was gutted to miss out on so much football with his school and club.
“I hope that I can get back playing with Nemo, as I do miss it a lot but for now, my main concentration is walking.
“Next month I am hoping to travel to either Switzerland or Hungary to train for the 10k, and also I’m heading Spain during the mid term, and then Russia in May for the World Cup. I’m currently doing about 60/70K a week, although training can be a bit restricting at times because of school work.”
Principal of Coláiste Chríost Rí, Seán Ó Cathaláin, admires the work and dedication that Luke has given to both his athletics and school work.
“We are all very proud of Luke’s achievements. He has put in such a huge effort into preparing for the World Cup”