Aged 20 Ryan Gregson set an Australian record in the 1500m. The very next day he felt a pain that would destroy the following five years of his career. Now back, he’s raring to prove himself on the biggest stage of all.

In the mix

Ryan Gregson was born into a sporting family. His mum still holds her high school 400m record. But the New South Wales athlete, who was introduced to running aged five through Little Athletics, was no instant superstar, despite his obvious talent.

“I was always the kid who won the school cross country and the local races and I won a few bronze medals at state championships,” he explains. “I’d be there or thereabouts, but I was not shooting the lights out.”

Teen spirit

Aged 16, the boy from Wollongong won his first state title. He claims the improvement came with puberty.

“It was after I started to grow that I discovered some speed,” he explains. “I remember aged 15 running the national 3000m and James Nipperess [these days a steeplechaser] and I were battling it out, but he put four seconds on me in the final 200m.

“I then went through puberty, became stronger and taller and turned into a man. At that point I started to do to him what he had done to me.”

Men's 1500m final at the 2008 World Junior Championships ()

 Gregson (#24) finished fifth in final of the 1500m at the 2008 World Juniors

Prize chook

His development accelerated. He qualified for the 2007 Ostrava World Youth (U18) Championships and performed with pride, placing fifth in the 1500m final.

He repeated the trick at the following year’s Bydgoszcz World Junior (U20) Championships – incidentally finishing three places ahead of long-maned US steeplechase heart-throb Evan Jager. Both championships proved to a huge learning experience.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he recalls of Ostrava. “It was the first time I really understood how difficult international racing was.

“In my heat I was up against this kid from Zimbabwe running barefoot. I really had to work hard to catch him to make it to the final. I ran much better in the final, but I thought these guys at the international level are ruthless. It was also much more of a contact sport than I had thought.”

Gregson recently revisited his world junior final on YouTube. He noticed major flaws in his strategy.

“Looking back it was terrible,” he admits. “I’m running in lanes two and three. I was running like a chook [Aussie slang for chicken] with his head cut off.”

Nic’s group

In 2009 he hooked up with Nic Bideau, the highly respected former coach to Craig Mottram, 5000m bronze medallist at the 2005 Helsinki World Championships. It was a move he hoped would professionalise his training and overall approach.

The pair have remained a rock-solid duo ever since. Gregson is confident the partnership will allow him to fulfil his potential. 

“He’s hard but fair, and he’s not scared to tell you if you have done something wrong,” he explains.

“If ever I get a handshake from Nic after the race or a pat on the back after a training session, you know you have done well. He won’t sugar coat anything.”

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Mighty in Monaco

Gregson enjoyed an unbeaten 2010 domestic season, setting a PB 3:35.42 in Sydney. Nonetheless, the historical significance of his next achievement came as a surprise, not least to Gregson himself.

He lined up in Monaco for his first international race of the year. The Meeting Herculis has a reputation for producing fast times, as Gregson would soon discover: he finished fifth in 3:31.06, smashing Simon Doyle’s 19-year-old national record.

“That day I would have been happy to have run 3:34, but that’s Monaco,” he says. “The pacing is good, the weather is good, everyone is there to run fast and you can borrow a couple of seconds.

“It was a crazy time. Everything back then was happening to me for the first time and I thought it was always going to be like that.”

Won’t be beaten

Yet the following morning from his miracle in Monaco he woke up with a pain in his foot, later diagnosed as a navicular stress fracture.

It ushered in “four years and three months” of injury heartbreak that included: a further three stress fractures, injuries to his Achilles, patella and hamstring, and a torn calf in the heats of the London 2012 Olympics. Every time he regained fitness from one injury another part of his body would break down. It is a dispiriting cycle that pushes most to brink.

But Gregson stuck at it. Each year he would show glimpses of his best form; his season’s best never dipped slower than 3:36. Even at his lowest ebb he insists quitting never figured in his thoughts.

“There was never an option of not getting back. To be a great runner is all I’d wanted to do since I was a little boy. I was never going to give it up.”

Ryan Gregson during the 2016 Rome Diamond League ()

“I would say it was my best race, full stop” 

Comeback trail

Gregson has been injury free since November 2014. He says he now has “the foundations” in place to dodge the problems which reeked havoc with his early career.

The result has been that the Melbourne-based athlete has finally felt his old (young, surely?) self again. He enjoyed an unbeaten Australian domestic season at the start of this year. He has followed that up with a string of strong performances internationally.

Gregson impressed to win in Nijmegen 3:35.78 – holding off training partner Luke Mathews – before unleashing a pair of third place finishes in the Rabat and Rome Diamond Leagues – the latter in a season’s best 3:34.27 for his third fastest time ever.

It is a performance he ranks as the finest of his career so far.

“I would say it was my best race, full stop,” insists Gregson, whose girlfriend, steeplechase ace Genevieve LaCaze, is also enjoying an outstanding 2016.

“When I set my PB in Monaco I finished fifth but I lost by a second-and-a-half, whereas in Rome I was leading down the home straight and only lost by point three of a second.”

Olympic redemption

Gregson believes he has the ability to one day dip below 3:30 for the 1500m, but his immediate focus is to finally deliver on the major championship stage.

This summer could provide the 26-year-old with his first opportunity to do that on the senior stage, and he is ready to pounce.

“I’ve never made it to a major championships final before and Rio is my best opportunity,” he says. “The main aim is to make that final and then to finish as high up as I can.”