After two personal bests, a stadium record, a national title retained, and qualifying for the World Championships, its safe to say its been an unforgettable month for Brian Gregan.
For any athlete it would be easy to get carried away with this form and place high expectations on oneself, especially when you’ve once been the fastest man in Europe over your distance.
However, Irish 400m athlete Gregan knows it hasn’t all been plain sailing up to now, and although quietly confident, he remains focused with his feet firmly on the ground as he goes through his final preparations ahead of the World Championships in London.
For Gregan it’s been four years without a personal best, but finally, after a lot of ups and downs he got to experience that joyous moment again running a 45.48 PB in Geneva at the start of this month. The time was also good enough to secure World Championship qualification.
That was the magic he and his team had long yearned for, and as the saying goes ‘good things come in pairs’, and they sure did. Less than two weeks later on a warm summer’s night, a packed Morton Stadium witnessed Gregan’s standout performance of 2017, as he smashed his personal best again running 45.26, over 0.20 quicker than in Geneva. “It was four years without a PB, so to come back and break it not once but twice was massive,” he said.
The July magic continued last weekend when Gregan retained his 400m Irish national title, winning in comfortable fashion in front of an adoring crowd. The Dublin native enjoyed the moment, but he knows this sort of form has long been expected of him, and although we commentators may get carried away with romantic headlines, he won’t allow himself to.
For Gregan all the achievements and accolades so far this year have been geared towards London, where he is ready to re-announce to the world, he’s back. “Last weekend was just ticking the boxes making sure I won the national championships,” says Gregan. When I was in London, I lived only a stones throw from the Olympic Stadium and seeing that stadium everyday I always had dreams of competing in it.”
Gregan’s experienced all the ups and downs imaginable for an athlete. A serious injury as a teenager, followed by national success at a young age, moving further afield in search of something more only to realise the grass isn’t always greener, self doubt, and then illness. It’s no wonder he thought about giving it all up, but through the difficult times, one man other than his family, has been there by his side, going through it all too, his coach and mentor John Shields.
Speaking about how he started in athletics and met Shields, Gregan said: “I first met John when I was 15. I was actually competing in the 400m hurdles at the Irish schools at the time. He was watching me hurdle and noticed I was sprinting and then stopping at the hurdle, but yet still fit to finish second, so he said to me, why don’t you just get rid of the hurdles?”
“That was it with the hurdles, and I then went on to win my first juvenile 400m title that year. Unfortunately I had a bad injury shortly after this, tearing my abductor and missed two full years of athletics. After I recovered from the injury I picked up the 400m again at junior level in school and haven’t looked back since.”
Fast forward to 2012 and an inform Gregan ran an Olympic B-standard of 45.61, but missed out on the Olympics Games in London because the Olympic Council of Ireland decided to only accept A-standards, even though other nations like Great Britian accepted athletes with B-standards, a difficult thing for any athlete to accept.
Putting that behind him, 2013 was Gregan’s best year up to that point, and at one stage he was ranked the number one indoor 400m athlete in Europe. He qualified for the World Championships in Moscow, making it into the semi-finals and followed that up with a fifth place finish at the World University Games.
Spurred on by this success and with ambitions of taking his craft to the next level, Gregan decided to change coach. At this stage he had been working with John Shields for eight years, but decided he needed a new approach and moved to John Coghlan. The following year was a decent year, but the change in coach and training hadn’t quite brought about the results Gregan had hoped for.
So, still in search of bringing his athletics career to new heights, Gregan decided to move away from familiar surrounding and headed to London, teaming up with Chris Zah and a new training group.
“The move didn’t quiet work out for me, and I kind of regret it a little bit. I still enjoyed the experience but it just didn’t click with me. In fairness to the group over there, Chris Zah the coach and the set up was great, but I missed home and the medical backup I had in Ireland,” he explains.
After a year in London, Gregan moved back to Ireland and asked his former coach John Shields if he would coach him once more. “When I left he had taken it quiet badly. We had been working together for nearly eight years. It wasn’t an easy decision for me but I needed to try something different to go to the next level, ” he says. “When I returned John had really up-skilled himself as a coach, all self taught, I was amazed by his knowledge.”
Speaking further about teaming up with Shields again, he said: “I struggled at the start, but John’s been a mentor rather than a coach to me and he really kept me going through the tough times. The two of us have been through so much, we now know what works and doesn’t work and have a developed a good programme that suits both of us.”
After a few month’s finding his feet again it was Olympic year and like every top athlete Gregan had ambitions of making it to Rio, but at the beginning of that year Gregan was hit by another blow, picking up a mysterious virus while training in Florida.
“2016 was heartbreaking because it was the year of the Olympic Games. I’ve been to four world championships, two indoors and two outdoors but the one I haven’t been to is the big one. The one I’ve always wanted to go to,” he says, “but, I pushed myself like every athlete does, that little bit too much and unfortunately picked up a virus. I was in and out of hospital and unable to get any training in from the beginning of February until the end of July.
“This was very testing times for me and I really struggled. I definitely thought about giving it up. My family and friends were very good and Athletics Ireland too, but no one could figure out what it was. My bloods were ok, but if you took one look you knew I wasn’t fine. I was as white as a ghost and my resting heart rate was 20 beats above what it normally would be,” he explains. “When I went to training, John would just send me home because I was absolutely exhausted after five minutes of a warm up.
“The worst thing about it there wasn’t a timeline. If you pull a hamstring you know how many weeks you have to get back, but with this, I just had no idea. The deadline for the Olympics was coming up and I wasn’t even training. It was a difficult period for me and I didn’t know if I wanted to continue with the sport, but John in fairness has always been there and kept me going.
“Reflecting on it now, I would say sometimes you need the tough times to build character, you learn a lot in defeat and when things aren’t going well, more so than from victory.”
Gregan’s health eventually improved but by this stage it had taken its toll mentally and the motivation for the sport and training was dwindling.
However, something changed at the end of 2016. It wasn’t the next development in sports science or new training methods. It was simply go back to where it all began – the hurdles.
“I got fed up with it, ten years at the highest level of 400m took its toll. I’d been to the World Championships and European Championships, and just needed a change. So this year, I said to John what about the hurdles? He thought it was a joke at first, but I said I needed to do something to get that motivation and love back for the sport. I’m one of those people who absolutely loves athletics, but its such a tough sport you need to enjoy it to progress,” he says.
“So we decided that we would just train for the hurdles all through the winter. Everyday we would come up and just throw a few hurdles out, do the drills and I was actually going pretty well. John was shocked, I had picked up the technique relatively quickly and I was starting to get a good stride pattern. Things looked pretty good with the hurdles and I was probably enjoying training more than I ever had, it was like being a child again and actually loving the sport for what it is.”
Gregan hugely benefited from the winter training, however a slight foot injury concerned him enough to put the hurdling on hold. Having recaptured the motivation and drive he had been seeking, it was time for the 400m again.
Now in the form of his life after a summer to remember, Gregan is primed to re-announce his return to the world of athletics, and what better place to do it than the World Championships in London. As an added incentive, the Irish athlete finally gets the chance to compete in the stadium he’s dreamed about from 2012. In a way, it will be somewhat of a homecoming for Gregan, as he returns to the city he once called home, and a stadium he once lived so close to.
The route taken to get this far, has been bumpy to say the least, but when he walks onto the London track, it will be the coach’s as much the athlete’s moment of glory.