Sprint star Gregan can catapult himself into public eye with medal in Gothenburg
Published 28/02/2013 | 04:00
EIGHT years ago, a big, chatty, lanky Dub, whom few Irish people had ever heard of, won a European 400m Indoor title to come hurtling into our sporting consciousness.
Be honest now, you'd never really heard of David Gillick before his barnstorming performances in Madrid in March 2005.
And interest was particularly piqued because he had that chirpy personality, a stud in his eyebrow and a bit of a gaelic football background.
Most of us may have kicked a ball or swung a hurley or racquet at some stage, but few have ever stepped onto a track to stake our reputation against a stop-watch and, thus, can't fully understand the magnitude of what some of our best track stars achieve.
Most of them live in a twilight world, only infiltrating the headlines if they make a podium at European or World level, which, worryingly, has become the barometer that now earns them individual grant aid.
But Brian Gregan understands the enormity of what Irish sprinters like Gillick, Derval O'Rourke and Paul Hession have achieved recently.
There were no medals or civic receptions when Gillick finished sixth in the 2009 (outdoor) World Championships in Berlin, where two-time European silver medallist Derval O'Rourke finished fourth.
But Gregan marvelled, because he's part of the next generation of Irish track rats coming up fast on their spikes, striving to also become a world-class sprinter in a country largely obsessed by team sports, golf and a different type of racing thoroughbred.
Another big rangey Dub, the 23-year-old from Tallaght finally has a chance to step out of the Gillick's shadow this weekend by winning his own 400m medal at the European Indoors in Gothenburg, which start tomorrow.
He almost barged onto the back pages last summer, when he was in a medal position in the European 400m final in Helsinki with just 50 metres to go, but was then struck with a groin injury.
Limping in sixth robbed him of his headline, but Gregan has continued to make progress and is the fastest indoor quarter-miler in Europe this year, not to mention fourth fastest in the world.
That time of 46.07 was run in Athlone IT in early January and he was actually slower (46.73) when he won a big race in Belgium 10 days later.
But it was Ghent that caused flutters, because the two men directly behind him both made last summer's Olympic 400m final: Jonathan Borlee (2012 European champion) and Luguelin Santos (19), the latest Caribbean teen star who took silver in London.
Gregan's lifetime best of 45.61 last summer was just 0.2 of a second short of the Olympic 'A' qualification standard and both he and his coach John Shields admit that heartache has made him train harder than ever this winter.
First coached by Tony Byrne in Tallaght AC and now running for Clonliffe, Gregan was a 400m hurdler when he first joined Shields in his mid-teens, and he quickly converted him to the flat.
"He hadn't the co-ordination or the flexibility needed to be a top-class hurdler," Shields chuckles.
"But the first thing I noticed was Brian's fantastic power. He just has that naturally, plus an enormous stride length too that eats up the ground."
At 6 ' 3" and powerfully built, Gregan's stature probably contributed to him being haunted by groin and hamstring injuries in his youth. But hooking up with the Irish Institute of Sports (IIS) strength and conditioning coach John Cleary has been pivotal to sorting out his injuries and technique.
A sinus operation in late 2011 was also crucial in helping Gregan – who is asthmatic – resolve some breathing issues.
Studying sports science in DCU has further contributed to his development, and he's now able to train full-time after graduating last summer.
In 2008 another hulking Caribbean athlete called Kirani James, the 20-year-old Olympic champion in London, was second in the World Junior (U-20) 400m final in Poland.
Gregan was fifth in that race, but subsequently disqualified for breaking his lane.
The following summer he had to pull up with injury in his European U-23 heat and he made a low-key Irish senior debut in 2010.
But in 2011 he won silver at the European U-23s behind top Brit Nigel Levine and also took fifth at World Student Games.
A first major medal last summer would undoubtedly have catapulted him into the headlines, had that injury not hampered him at the crucial moment.
"I know people say those Europeans were weakened because of the Olympics, and that there was no Borlee or Gillick, but I've beaten Borlee since and I think I can compete with these guys now," he says.
Gregan insists a medal is no certainty in Gothenburg and is still relatively inexperienced, but the schedule – one round per day – should help him.
Graduating from DCU, where he lived on campus, means he's now back living with his parents in Belgard, where they've still got the spikes his late grandfather used to compete in the '404 yards' at the Tailteann Games in Croke Park.
His girlfriend Ciara McCallion is a physio and races 400m too, so understands his dedication.
Training in Santry involves travelling across the M50, sometimes twice daily, which he reckons costs "€40 alone in toll charges every week!"
Reaching the European senior final has finally earned him his first individual grant from the Sports Council, but it's still only €12,000, so he is "living on scraps" and glad of some additional support from Loki Sports and Adidas.
If Gregan finally sprints onto the back pages on Sunday, then a whole world of possibility and publicity may finally open up for the young Irish sprinter now billed as 'the next Gillick.'