David Gillick on the raw and the cooked
From becoming 400m European Champion in 2005 - and retaining the title in 2007 - to serious injury, to being crowned RTE's 'Celebrity MasterChef' in 2013, David Gillick has lived life in the fast lane, with many bumps along the way. The Ballinteer man talks about the injury that prematurely ended his glorious sporting career, the low he suffered when he retired last year, and how he rebooted his brain by changing his way of eating
Clermont, Florida, 10.30am, February 20, 2011. Celebrated Irish athlete David Gillick - a future winner of RTE's Celebrity MasterChef - who was in training for the Olympics in London the following year, was nearing the end of a run . . .
"It was almost like someone had shot me in the back of the calf," David says now. "I jumped up. I couldn't walk."
He went for a scan, where he was told it wasn't anything too serious. "I was misdiagnosed. They thought it was my plantaris tendon. They said, 'Give it another couple of days and you can get back on the track'." And then, when David did, "It popped again. This happened again several times."
He had badly torn his soleus, the muscle between the top of his calf and his Achilles tendon - an injury that, in the long run, was to wreck his dream of competing in the London 2012 Olympics.
"I was absolutely devastated," David says. The injury also prematurely put an end to what was a superlative sporting career. He was 400m European Champion in Madrid in 2005, and he retained the title in 2007 in Birmingham.
David, who joined Dundrum Athletic Club when he was nine - "I had that raw talent," he remembers - represented Ireland in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. "It was a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics," he says.
"Unfortunately, I didn't perform at my best," he admits. "I think I just put too much pressure on myself, to be honest. I probably stressed myself out a little bit in the weeks running up to it."
Can the mind affect the body that way?
"Massively. You can win or lose a race long before you get a foot on the track. Long before. That was a huge learning curve for me."
When Gillick officially withdrew from international athletics in June 2014, President of Athletics Ireland, Ciaran O Cathain, spoke for many of us when he said, "I would like to wish David all the best in his retirement on what has been a remarkable athletics career. He is an inspiration to all of our athletes through his achievements in athletics".
How did he cope with suddenly not being an athlete?
"It was a struggle," David tells me. "I would beat myself up about athletics. I would miss it. I would want it."
"I had a lot of problems with my calves," David adds. "Generally, a sprinter is going to be up on his toes. You are constantly sprinting on your toes. You are putting 18 times your body weight through your leg when you are running, and over time, 400 metres is quite a demanding event.
"It's funny, because I got to a point where I had no injuries; then I was 29, 30 - that's when they came," he says. "I got one, and then they came again, and I missed the London Olympics, and it just kind of spiralled from there a little bit.
"Unfortunately, then, my funding was cut, [as well as] sponsors. I wasn't making money from running. So you kind of look at it like: 'God -how am I going to keep a roof over my head?'"
And how did you?
"I suppose, earlier on, I had a decent career," David says, with just a touch of modesty. "I won a couple of medals, and I was able to save a bit and keep myself sustained. But then it got to a point where I stopped making money from the sport and after all the injuries, mentally, I just got a little bit fed up with it," he says with remarkable honesty.
"When I retired, I was frustrated with my sport, and depressed that my career as an athlete was over," David says, adding that he went straight into a full-time job with sports brand New Balance. Working on the marketing side, he was on the road a lot both in Ireland and in the United Kingdom, and he "forgot", he recalls, "about the value of exercise and a healthy diet".
"So I was wasn't eating well," he says. "I wasn't being active. I was astounded with the effect it had on my mental state."
I ask him to explain that.
"You're tired. You're grumpy. You feel crap about yourself. You have no energy. You feel lethargic, heavy, just sluggish. That's the way I felt.
"If I was on the road, I would pull into a petrol station, and go in to pay for diesel, and I'd come out with a muffin. I'd be sitting in the car, going : 'Why am I eating this?' I wouldn't have eaten since breakfast. So I would be starving. Then I'd have crisps or chocolate.
"Whatever is high-sugar, something that is going to talk to you straight away, you grab it. That's the thing about food," David continues, "if we don't eat, it affects our insulin levels. So you crave sugar. You crave something that is fast-releasing, which is high GI [glycemic index] - high-sugar foods, which is generally your poor-quality foods."
Is sugar the devil?
"Sugar wouldn't be good on the body in any way," he answers.
"The only times you should be eating high-sugar foods is post-exercise. When you have been out and you have been really active, that's when your body really craves that, from a recovery point of view. But the effect that sugar has on our insulin levels throughout the day goes back to when we were kids," he laughs of his youth in Ballinteer on the southside of Dublin.
"I remember having a can of Coke as a kid. You'd be running around like a headless chicken. My mum would be going: 'You're hyper!' Then you're knackered, sitting in the corner, and you want another can! You are peaking and troughing throughout the day.
"So in any walk of life, where you are meant to be performing throughout the whole day," David says, "and if you have meetings in the afternoon, that's when most people are reaching for that 3pm, 4pm slump, of a hit of caffeine or a hit of sugar, the chocolate bar. And, likewise, in the morning time, around 11 o'clock, people get a little bit hungry - it is that time in between your breakfast and your lunch. You look for some high-sugar food, when really we should be eating food that is low in sugar."
Most of us will probably know David Gillick from winning Celebrity MasterChef on RTE in August 2013. He beat Aengus Mac Grianna, who was runner-up, and Maia Dunphy, who finished in third place, with his quinoa-crumbed lamb cutlets; halibut fillet with an avocado, apple and celeriac remoulade, with lemon vinaigrette; and summer meringue torte.
Then, last autumn, a publisher approached him - and the result is the very user-friendly David Gillick's Kitchen: Good Food From The Track To The Table.
Gillick's raison d'etre in terms of his food is, he says, "that it's healthy, but it's simple."
"I found it very impractical when there are certain healthy recipes and you have to get a certain ingredient from a certain shop in town, that takes an hour to get to, and you just don't have the time to do it. There might be little bits and bobs that you have to go into, say, an Asian market or a unique health store in town.
"I want to be able to walk into my local supermarket, like a Lidl or a Tesco, and buy something there and bring it home, and I want to make it. Something that is going to take 15 or 20 minutes."
David continues: "I wanted to gear it towards people who are leading active lives, busy lives, have families. You're working, potentially, eight or nine hours a day. You come home, you still want to eat healthy. What can you do?
"In the book, there is a whole array of recipes, but in particular, I use a lot of coconut. You buy that in the supermarket. It adds lots of flavour with lemon chicken, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash. Things like that are constantly readily available, and they are inexpensive.
"People have this notion that trying to eat healthily is expensive and it takes a lot of time," he says - but it doesn't have to be.
From David's background of being a professional athlete, one of the elements he really honed in was "eating well for performance. Not just for my performance on the track, but for my performance every day, and making sure I had enough energy through the day".
"The dishes in the book," he says, "are not reinventing the wheel. It's not based on a diet, or avoiding food groups, but the dishes are showing that real food can be delicious, easy to make and enjoyable for the masses.
"My overall aim was to keep this book simple. the objectives were to keep it easy to follow, and accessible to everyone - whether you are an elite athlete, a busy corporate athlete, a busy parent, or someone who just wants to eat better."
I ask him about his philosophy on food.
"My philosophy on food is born out of practicality," he says. "It was always about keeping things simple - easy to follow and easy to sustain. It is also about a lifestyle choice, not a short-term diet that last two weeks and then - day one, week three - everything falls apart.
"The key for me is to keep it simple, to eat real food. You don't find a huge list of ingredients on the back of an apple!" David laughs.
"It's easy these days to find a 'new' diet online, there are so many of them out there - Paleo, gluten-free, vegan - and I think it all gets a little confusing. Yes, they all have their merits, but for me it's about longevity, and taking the first step of focussing on unprocessed, low-sugar foods is the right direction."
Gillick, of course, has someone special to test out his food philosophies on. He married his long-term girlfriend, Charlotte Wickham, on August 23, 2014 at Thwaite Hall in North Yorkshire. David met his English Rose in Loughborough, in October 2007, when he moved into a house in with a male friend who was looking for two more housemates.
Recalls David with a laugh: "He was like - 'I'm just going to get women in!' And one of those was Charlotte. So, we were living together from day one. She was a great person, good fun, great attitude."
There was a bit of flirting in the beginning, for a couple of months, he admits.
Was it like, you'd hear her get up in the morning, you'd suck in your tummy, and charge out of your bedroom, pretending to be rushing for the shower, just as she was coming out of her bedroom?
"I'd be doing my abs in my bedroom before I came down with my top off!" he laughs.
"There were little games like that. She told me later, when we were in a relationship, that there were times when I might get out of bed in the morning and she might put on a bit of make-up before she came down for breakfast!"
Their first date came courtesy of RTE, who invited David to the Sports Awards later that year in 2007.
"I was thinking, 'This could be the ultimate date here; invite her to a televised black-tie event'. That's what I did. That was our first date. December 20, 2007.
"It was kind of funny because I was staying with my parents. They were like, 'Who are you bringing?' 'I'm bringing my housemate'. I played everything down. I didn't give off the vibe that she was my potential girlfriend. It went really well."
Did she stay in your parents' house?
"Separate rooms! My mum and dad really liked her," David - who is the youngest of four; his siblings are Tony, John and Eileen - says of his mum and dad, Sheila and Jim.
He asked Charlotte to marry him on New Year's Eve 2013, at her parents' house. (He had asked her dad, Keith, in August of that year for his permission to propose to his daughter).
Charlotte's mum Audrey put on a big spread, and it all went to plan. David bought a Claddagh ring in Dublin airport on the way over. "I always kind of knew that Charlotte was going to be my wife. I couldn't see myself being without her or not having her in my life," he says.
Having moved back from England last year, David and Charlotte now live in Firhouse, south Dublin, and are now expecting their first child.
Who does the cooking at home?
"I do!" he laughs.
And what does he prepare in their kitchen on a normal day?
"Breakfast generally would be porridge oats, Greek yoghurt with berries, nuts and seeds. Very straightforward and simple. Nice and balanced and healthy. Then, at lunchtime, I'd generally have a lot of salad and a good source of protein. And if I am going to train, I'd have bulgur wheat or couscous, or some form of low-GI carbohydrate as well.
"Dinner can consist of protein - chicken, turkey, eggs, fish - and plenty of veg."
"I always aim for above-ground vegetables," he says, "less starchy veg . . . your broccolis, your cauliflowers, your courgettes, your peppers.
"Lots of colour on the plate."
'David Gillick's Kitchen: Good Food From The Track To The Table', published by Mercier Press, €22.95, is available now in all good bookshops nationwide
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