WATCHING Brian Gregan stroll through Liffey Valley shopping centre makes for interesting viewing. Everything about his demeanour and appearance points to the fact that he's an athlete of substance. He's tall, muscular, confident and currently the fastest man in Europe over 400 metres. Yet nobody in the shopping centre pays much attention because they don't know who Brian Gregan is.
Although thousands of Irish people tune into the Olympics every four years, very few show much interest in athletics beyond those two weeks. That's the harsh reality of the level of public interest in Irish athletics. Last weekend, Gregan comprehensively beat the Olympic 400m silver medallist Santos Lugueli and sixth-placed Jonathan Borlee at an indoor event in Ghent. This will be news to most.
Being an Irish athlete can be a frustrating existence but when things start to click and times improve, then all the effort and sacrifice seem worthwhile. And Gregan for one knows all about this. Until last summer, the 23-year-old was struggling with illness and injuries, his biggest achievement on the track was a silver medal at the 2011 European Under 23 championships. But then, out of nowhere at the European Championships in Helsinki, Gregan arrived.
Going into the championships, he wasn't expecting much. In the run-up, he'd been sick and had missed a lot of training, so making a final was all he expected. Surprisingly, by the end of the first round, he'd exceeded his expectations by running a personal best of 45.6. It was an effortless run, in the semis he ran 45.7 in poor conditions. A fairytale ending was in sight.
However, the final didn't go to plan; just after the gun went, the Italian runner outside him pulled up injured, Gregan thought it was a false start. He stopped running abruptly then started again but the jarring movement damaged his groin. He powered through the race and with 10 metres to go was still in medal contention. The pack marginally pulled away, Gregan finished sixth and, all things considered, it wasn't a bad run.
So what changed for the Tallaght native?
Firstly, his confidence. Last year, he ran a quick 100m time, so quick that he's just outside the top 10 Irish times. This forced him to change his race plan, as he realised that he has raw speed and so doesn't need to wait for the last 200 to take the race. Instead, he now attacks from the gun, owning it all the way round the track.
Along with his running sessions with coach John Shields in Santry, Gregan uses the facilities at the Institute of Sport. John Cleary, the resident strength and conditioning coach, designed a weights programme for him and, as a result, he's leaner and stronger.
Last week in Ghent, his new physique paid dividends. Gregan held his own while jockeying for position with the experienced Borlee and Santos. Frequent visits to the physiotherapist have kept his injuries at bay. He makes sure to monitor his body, any niggles are dealt with before they develop into anything serious. Gregan leaves nothing to chance.
In the off-season he practises Fartlek and this interval training has helped his speed and endurance and also his recovery. When it comes to diet Gregan is meticulous. He's always conscious of fuelling himself with the right foods. He'll bake protein bars and cookies and more often than not he'll cook healthy meals. If he feels any way unwell he'll tailor his diet accordingly, again working with an expert in that field, nutritionist Crionna Tobin.
After his heroics in Helsinki, Gregan went on to have a good summer of racing. His personal best from Helsinki was the 'B' standard for the Olympics but much to his disappointment Athletics Ireland opted to leave the 'B' standard athletes at home. As it turned out, his best time of 46.5 would have been enough to make a semi-final had he been sent.
"It was a big mistake and an oversight not to send some 'B'-standard athletes," explains Gregan. "I think if I had have gone, I would have ran the 'A' standard there, the track was fast but unfortunately we were robbed of that experience because of a bad decision."
The Olympic disappointment aside, Gregan is pretty happy with how his career is progressing. He has a good relationship with Athletics Ireland but believes that like most aspects of sport there is always room for improvement.
"There should be better communication with the athletes and the high-performance manager," he says. "I'm quite lucky that I have regular contact but there could be more visiting training sessions and things like that. If people are asked how well an athlete is doing, they won't know unless they see them. But for me I know there is a changing of the tide with the system. I'll stick with it because it is changing and you have to give it time to."
Gregan is set to receive his first Sports Council funding next month. He'll receive €12,000 for the year. Until now he's been living off his parents, sponsorship and race winnings. At times, it's been a struggle but he's gotten by. The top-level grant available is €40,000 but, as it stands, the only way Gregan will qualify for that is if he wins a medal at an Olympic Games.
"It's crazy that you have to win a medal in track and field at the Olympics to get top-level funding. Reaching a final should be enough for such a competitive sport. You can count on two hands the number of Olympic medals we've won in track and field and it's been a long time since we last won one. I think an Olympic final should be worth €40k. If you make an Olympic final, you are top eight in the world that has to be enough."
Today, Gregan runs in the 200m at the National Indoors in Athlone, next month he's got the European Indoors and then it's the World Championships in Moscow in the summer. Having a 4x400 relay team at the Worlds is something Gregan would like to see happening and be part of. With so many currently running sub 48 seconds, he feels that it's worth a shot.
"The standard of 3.05 is set for the World Championships that averages at just over 46 for the splits. That's definitely achievable but I think we need to put some work and focus into it."
For Gregan, David Gillick is an ideal candidate for the relay team. Interestingly, they have never raced against each other or ran on a team together; the former European champion has been a hero for Gregan for years and he'd be honoured to run with him.
"People don't realise how good Gillick is, he's had a tough couple of years but hopefully he'll get back. To break 45 seconds is huge, that's the Champions League of athletics."
He may not be one of Ireland's most recognisable athletes but Gregan is one of the most talented. And in the sporting world that counts for a lot.