For much of the past two years, he felt like “a bit of a fraud.”
The reason is simple. Beset by injuries, Brian Gregan couldn’t do the thing for which he is best known: ripping a lap of the track in 45-odd seconds.
But if he wasn’t an international 400m runner, what was he? Tussling with that question led him the 29-year-old Dubliner to a dark place.
“I felt like the forgotten man,” Gregan said at the launch of Joma as the official performance and sportswear partner of Athletics Ireland. “It was demoralising. I was anxious, I was stressed, I was doubting my ability. Would I ever get back?”
It’s more than two years since he last finished a race, yet Gregan is adamant that his slide into athletic anonymity will be far from the final chapter of his career. In 2017, he was Irish track and field athlete of the year, finishing sixth in the 400m semi-final at the World Championships in London.
He lowered his PB to 45.26 that summer and was shaping into a medal contender for the 2018 European Championships. But in April last year, while in the best shape of his life, he felt a deep, creaking pain in his ankle.
The medical staff at the Sport Ireland Institute suspected a bone bruise, but an MRI scan was inconclusive. Gregan ploughed on in the hope of making it to Berlin, cross-training twice a day in the pool and hammering gym work. He had a cortisone injection which bought him some time, but the pain came back just as bad.
In July last year, he called time on his season, but in the autumn the pain still lingered. In November he had another cortisone injection, and soon after he saw a new doctor at the Institute: James O’Donovan, who suspected something more sinister was happening.
He sent Gregan for a CT scan, which revealed a stress fracture in his lower tibia along with an osteophyte (bone spur). Gregan was referred to James Calder, a renowned surgeon in London who works with Premier League footballers.
Gregan saw him in mid-December and four days later he went under the knife, with Calder inserting pins into his tibia and shaving down the bone spur. “That hairline fracture may never heal itself but it’s pretty good right now,” says Gregan.
He spent the first month of 2019 on crutches, and Gregan rehabbed back to health in the months that followed. “It was demanding, very tedious,” he says.
By April he was back in good shape, but his legs couldn’t handle the same load as before, and an inflamed Achilles tendon soon sidelined him for six weeks. He got over that and planned his return to racing at the Morton Games in August, only for tightness in his hamstring tendon forcing him to slow to a stop halfway through that race.
That evening in Santry was important, however. “Mentally,” he says, “it was a little victory for me.”
Training under the watchful eye of John Shields, he proceeded with caution in the months since, and Gregan reports his health to be in full working order as a new year arrives — an Olympic year.
Working with sport psychologist Kate Kirby, he has learned to stop looking too far ahead, something that often made him “anxious and stressed”.
Since late 2017, Gregan has juggled his training with his work as director of sport at the Institute of Education, and that has allowed him to find balance in a sport that so often feels all-consuming.
“It means I can switch off but I can also impart the knowledge I have to the students,” he says.
“Talking to them about my career also gives me confidence: if I’ve done it before, I can do it again.”