Former team-mate's tragic passing puts injury woes into perspective for Brian Gregan

The athlete’s good friend, Craig Lynch, passed away in a car accident last year.

Brian Gregan pictured competing at the World Athletics Championships in 2017.
Brian Gregan pictured competing at the World Athletics Championships in 2017.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT WAS A momentous weekend for Brian Gregan.

After more than two years of injury problems, the 30-year-old Dubliner made his long-awaited return at the 2020 National Indoor Athletics Championships.

He won his 400m heat in 48.43, before claiming a bronze in the final with 48.21, behind Andrew Mellon and Cathal Crosbie.

Despite coming away with a medal, Gregan was disappointed with his performance.

“The lead up to it wasn’t exactly ideal,” he tells The42. “I pulled my hamstring five weeks ago. I strained my calf two weeks ago. I had a couple of little injuries going into it. It was almost like going into an exam being 50% prepared — I needed a little bit more time, but I needed to get out there and race. The priority itself was to get back and race — the performance will come during the summer, when it matters.

“I’m still in heavy training at the moment. To get through the anxiety, the adrenaline and the doubts, that was the big thing. When you haven’t done that in three years — not that you forget it, but everything becomes amplified and if there’s any negative self-thought, that really becomes amplified as well.”

With his confidence gradually improving, Gregan believes there is no reason why he can’t get back to his best ultimately.

There is plenty more weeks of training blocks to come, while Tokyo 2020 is firmly on the agenda, at least provided the various problems relating to the coronavirus disease don’t persist.

Getting to the Olympics would be a fairytale scenario for Gregan, not just because of the awful luck with injuries, but on account of narrowly failing to make previous Games.

London 2012 I missed out because Pat Hickey decided not to send any B-standard athletes. I was 21 at the time and ran three B standards. Every other Olympic Games, they sent B-standard athletes, but that year, they signed a document that they didn’t want to send any Bs.

“In 2016, I had a very bad virus, was in hospital and missed out. The team missed out by .03 of a second. We finished fifth in the European Championships.

“2020 obviously you have years of injuries, but I believe I’m mentally stronger now and once I have two or three blocks of training, there’s no reason I can’t run fast.

“If I can replicate anything near what I did in 2017 [when he came sixth in semi-finals of the World Championships], that’d be my ticket booked for Tokyo. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t even have to run a personal best. I just need a couple of good runs and then I’ll be going. I know that, the two previous Olympics, I hadn’t reached the standard. Now, I’ve done the A four or five times in my career.”

gary-scott-brian-gregan-and-noel-guiden Gregan has struggled with injury problems in recent years. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His injury hell started with a misdiagnosis. Doctors thought he had a bone bruise. He kept training in the hopes of getting over it. The problem was later revealed to be a more serious stress fracture in his lower tibia, coupled with an osteophyte

“The osteophyte is like a little bony knuckle or spur, so anytime my foot hit the ground on Dorsiflex, that was knocking into the bone and making it worse and worse until it cracked.”

Having begun the year hoping to win a European medal, Gregan was now facing a lengthy absence from sport.

“If it had been detected in the first stage, I wouldn’t have missed the 2019 season, but that’s the way things are,” he explains.

“Luckily, the doctor at Sport Ireland, James O’Donovan, came in and basically sorted it out.

“James had a look at it and just was very proactive with it, whereas other people were very conservative with it. We had to get it sorted asap and luckily it did.

“To be honest, that hasn’t been an issue since, it was just the rest of the body — hamstrings and achilles tendons adjusting to the load. The actual surgery and having the pins put in, I’ve had no issues with that so far.”

As tough as recovering from a long-term injury is, Gregan’s struggles were put into perspective last September when his friend Craig Lynch passed away tragically at the age of 29 as a result of a car accident.

Gregan and Lynch had competed together both as rivals and team-mates. They were on the Ireland team that ran in the 2015 World Relay Championships.

In a piece in The42 last December, Lynch’s former coach Jeremy Lyons recalled the day when they were neck and neck during the 2016 National Championship 400m final.

“It was an incredible race to the line between Craig and Brian Gregan,” he said.

“Even thinking about it, my heart rate goes up. It’s a competitive memory, I can visualise almost every stride of down that home straight.

“It was carried on the RTÉ News in the sports section that evening — the commentator shouting, ‘Craig Lynch is in the lead coming up to the line now, Gregan closing him down just inside… and he just pipped him on the line.’”

Reflecting now, Gregan says: “When I look back at the end of the summer, last weekend will be a defining moment.

“It could be a lot worse. A friend of mine, Craig Lynch, passed away in a car accident. His  fiancée and mum were there presenting a memorial trophy [at the National Indoors].

Life can be a lot worse than an injury. Sport is something that I love and I’m blessed to do as a job, but to see someone like that go so tragically, I’m quite lucky to be where I’m at.

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“Sport Ireland have been very good in their support of me. In the Institute, we do a lot of training out there — that’s where the doc is, that’s where the physio is, the nutritionist, everyone is there. So even the support after that, the psych support to see how we were and then obviously the mental side of my injury as well, having the right people around you [is important].

“I could have been cut from funding this year and I could be without funding, but they still had that belief that I’d get back and be ready for Tokyo, so I’m thankful to Sport Ireland.”

craig-lynch Gregan was a friend and former team-mate of the late Craig Lynch. Source: Karen Delvoije/INPHO

A part-time job as Director of Sport at the Institute of Education also played an important role in keeping the Dubliner on the right track mentally, as did the support team around him.

“Originally, that May to December — the uncertainty was a killer. It was so demoralising.

“Not knowing and having a cortisone injection here and there. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. The minute I found out [what the problem was] and had my surgery, the relief [was strong]. I was like, there’s a process here — I have four weeks of rehab, two weeks that I can’t touch the ground with my foot, two weeks where I’m going to be weight bearing, then’s it back running, jogging and sprinting.

“The only thing that kept me going was the support of everyone, but day by day, I didn’t want to think of — ‘I’m going to be back for the indoor season.’ I was thinking: ‘What targets do I need to hit today? I needed to have better range in my ankle and have less pain, do this in the gym [and so on].’

I never thought I’d never get back. I had a team around me, the right coach in John Shields at the Institute of Sport. But there were stages, like last year, when I tried to make a comeback. I injured my hamstring tendon and you’re thinking: ‘Not again.’”

He continues: “[The Institute job] I was humming and hawing about taking originally.

“20 hours of that and 20 hours of training. Can I do both? But thank God I did. I had that injury and I wasn’t able to run. The energy I had, I could focus that on the students I was working with in the workshops I was giving.

“[My sports psychologist] Kate Kirby was saying ‘split your time’. If you’re just sitting at home with your leg up, all you’re going to think about is that injury. If you’re at work and focusing your energy on trying to improve the student, that makes a huge difference.

“[My job involves] circuit training classes for students and staff just to get a bit of physical health into the school as well. I do work throughout the week on mental health, stress and anxiety, peak performance, how to prepare for exams, goal-setting, motivational work shops. And I work with fourth years on a programme where the focus is on mental health and preparing them for the Leaving Cert and so on. It’s kind of leading off into eventually teaching Physical Education as a Leaving Cert subject in 2021. It’s been a really good stepping stone. The support of the school has been really good for my athletics career.”

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Paul Fennessy

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