Decathlete Ben Gregory has set his sights on a fourth Commonwealth Games with Wales and believes the combined events needs to be showcased more. And, as he tells Dai Sport’s Owen Morgan, Wales’ No 1 multi-eventer also works as a part-time model which has seen him rub shoulders with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Murray.
Ben Gregory could be described as a model sportsman in more ways than one.
The decathlete is a multiple Welsh champion and national record holder who has worn the red vest at the past three Commonwealth Games.
Last month he captained Great Britain to victory in an international combined events international in Cardiff. His inspirational leadership drew praise from coaches and team-mates alike.
Away from athletics, Gregory is a part-time model who has featured in adverts for some of the biggest brands around the globe.
But there is plenty more the 28-year-old wants to achieve on and off the track, with a place in the Great Britain team for this year’s World Athletics Championships in Doha and representing Wales at a fourth Commonwealth Games in Birmingham firmly fixed in his sights.
In a wide-ranging interview with Dai Sport, the Birchfield Harrier discussed a number of subjects from his love of competing for Wales to how he became involved in the most demanding discipline in athletics and his hopes for the event to shake off its Cinderella status within the sport.
Growing up in Buckinghamshire, Gregory was a promising rugby player, much to the delight of his Tredegar-born, sports-mad father.
The former Wasps Academy player said: “As a youngster I did pretty much every sport under the sun.
“I think it was a bit of respite for my parents to just drop me off and maybe have an evening free, so I was doing something every night of the week, whether it was football, rugby, athletics, gymnastics, everything. I just loved it.
“As I got a little bit older, I narrowed it down. With rugby I was playing with the London Wasps Academy and was representing England schools in track and field.
“But I think I always preferred the idea that my own effort was determined by my own performance. I could have the game of my life in rugby and still lose.
“In athletics, I used to just love the fact that if you work harder than anyone else then you see the results. I think that’s what kept me in athletics.
“I thought maybe I’d give the athletics a go for a couple of years and then go back to the rugby. It would keep me fast, keep me strong.
“But I said that about 12 years ago now, so I’m probably not going back to the rugby. I’m not big enough now!
“I loved all the events and the different training disciplines. Going down to the club nights and having a go at the long jump, the javelin, the hurdles . . . there was never really an option to just focus on one.
“I just enjoyed everything about it – from being a youngster, when you are doing the five events in the pentathlon, I loved that.
“And then when I moved into the octathlon as an under 17 I was a little bit better at that because of the more diverse events.
“By the time I started decathlon, I was already training for the pole vault, I was one of the top pole vaulters in the country, so when I did my first decathlon, I was number one in the country at pole vault and moved from around mid-pack in the multi-events to right up at the top because I was so far ahead in the pole vault.
“Since then, people have caught me up quite a bit, but I’m still near the top, I’d like to think.”
Opting for the event he loved certainly wasn’t the easy option. The very nature of decathlon – having to become expert in 10 separate highly technical disciplines – brings its own unique difficulties.
Gregory says: “The challenge is definitely covering all the events in your training week without doing too much and burying yourself. It’s so easy to want to do more and try harder and feel like you’re going to get better, but it’s not the case.
“I’ve learnt that the hard way, where I’ve put myself in a deep hole with over training and not been able to get out of it for weeks on end.
“It’s not the same as when you watch it on the TV. You see Rocky training, he goes out to the mountains, he hits the bag as hard as he can and every session looks like he’s killing himself. If you do that in track and field you get hurt. I’ve done that many times.
“Now it’s about training smart, just touching on the events so that you can get enough technical work done as well as the speed work, the gym work and the running. You need to do everything, but as little as possible to get as much benefit.
“It’s really difficult managing that and we are often at the hands of when the coaches are available. I might do my sprints in the morning at 9am and have to wait around to see a shot put coach just after lunch and then not get into the gym until the evening. You’re literally out of the house the whole day, so you have to manage your time.
“There are 10 events but there are only seven days in the week. It’s really difficult and a real challenge, just doing enough and not getting injured.”
For all the effort put in to perfecting those 10 events and competing in them across two days of gruelling action, the decathlon gets relatively sparse coverage and publicity.
Apart from the major championships, the event tends to be competed at specialist decathlon meetings away from the spotlight.
Gregory would like to see multi-events competitions included at domestic showpiece occasions like the British Athletics Championships and possibly a shortened version included in Diamond League meetings.
“If the multi-events wasn’t pushed aside and given its own weekend, months away from the British Championships and we had the decathlon championships within those British Athletics Championships, I think people would buy into that.
“In my lifetime we have never had that. The Welsh Championships is the same it’s somewhere else, usually tied in with the British (decathlon)championships on a different weekend in Bedford when nobody knows about it.
“There’s no coverage so it’s not supported very well. I think things like that would help. Ultimately I understand that it’s a big, long, two-day event and it takes a lot of time in the programme, but they manage to do it at major championships, so I don’t see why they can’t do it at a national level.
“Maybe with events such as the Diamond League and the IAAF meetings, if they held a competition for the combined eventers – a three or four event challenge like you see in Paris. Because Kevin Mayer, the world record holder is from France, they manage to put an event on which allows him to compete at the same level and make a living out of athletics, but most other meets don’t.
“So unless you’re an expert, really excelling at one event in the decathlon, where you could effectively be an individual athlete in that event, then there is no chance for you to get on the circuits where you can pick up prize money, get the coverage and get the sponsors, so it’s very difficult.
“The most effort you can put in on the track and field is in the decathlon, the 10 events, and quite often it is the least covered and the least supported, so there is a discrepancy there.
“It’s not down to the public, or people not liking the event, it’s just down to the fact that because it takes up two days of competition, people just push it to the side, which is a real shame.”
Gregory was delighted that the recent combined events international in which he captained Great Britain against France, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, was included within the Welsh Indoor Athletics Championships in Cardiff.
He said: “It’s brilliant they did that and I think that everybody’s performance was lifted because of it. It wasn’t just friends and family there, there were real athletics fans there to see the Welsh Championships and they were lucky enough to see two world lead performances in the multi-events international.
“James Thie did a great job in the commentary box making sure everyone knew that this performance was worth this many points and so on.
“It doesn’t take much to keep people’s interest in it. They did a great job in Cardiff and it’s easily done. In future, hopefully, there will be a lot more meetings where they include it.”
Gregory produced a number of season’s best performances in Cardiff, helping Great Britain to overall victory in the international match, but he feels there is room for improvement as he turns his attention towards the outdoor season.
“We’re going to shut the indoor season down and go back to work for a good amount of time. It’s good to have a big block of work to be able to get your teeth stuck into. We’re going to target a first decathlon competition of the year in about 12 to 14 weeks depending on which one we choose.
“After my personal performances at the championships last weekend, having watched back the videos and talked to my coach, I think I was over-trying in events like the sprints and the jumps. I was forcing it too much.
“When you try too hard, you lose that relaxed elasticity where it feels effortless. I made things feel too hard, so we are just going to work on that in training. You have to be training at competition intensity but be in a relaxed manner, so that when you go there you’re not chasing it you’re not pushing too hard. You can let the performances happen.
“If you’re more tense, you shoot yourself in the foot because you’re trying harder and not getting as much out of your body. You want to try harder and do better but you’ve got to execute your technique and movements the way you do in training.
“I was trying to hit the shot put 20 metres instead of just trying to land it at 14. It ended up falling short of where I thought I should be. It’s all learning and, at this level, understanding how to approach the events.
“I got myself there in good shape and improved on nearly everything from Sheffield a few weeks before. In an ideal situation I’d compete again indoors in another month and have a good crack at my Welsh record, but the priority’s got to be for the outdoors and the decathlon.
Asked whether the World Athletics Championships in Doha at the end of the summer were on the agenda, Gregory said: “It’s definitely a goal, they’ve moved the goalposts and cut down the numbers actually able to qualify for my event , so we’re down to 24 qualifying now as opposed to 32 and in previous games even more than that.
“It’s going to be challenging, but it’s a goal. I’m not ruling it out. If you add my personal best across the board together that’s enough to go, but doing 10 perfect events is near on impossible so you’ve got to just head your head down, push on and make sure you’re making small improvements that will get those big gains across the 10 events.
“It only takes a little bit in each event to add up to a big improvement in the decathlon and that’s what we’re going to work towards for the summer.
“It’s going to be fun just having a nice long outdoor season. No time pressure to get qualifying marks done by a certain date. So I’ll be looking at spacing out a few decathlons around Europe, heading to the British Championships and then possibly find another one and give myself the best opportunities possible to get that score, if that’s where the cards fall.
“But we’re definitely looking at the year after that and building up towards the next Commonwealths as a big goal as well. Every year there’s new things and new championships to aim for.”
Selection for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham would mean a fourth appearance at the “Friendly Games” for Gregory, following sixth place finishes in both Delhi and Glasgow and a seventh on the Gold Coast last year.
Gregory considers his first appearance in the Commonwealth Games as the highlight of his athletics career so far.
“Definitely pulling on the Welsh jersey in my first Commonwealth Games,” he answered when asked for his favourite moment in athletics. “It was a turning point in my career where I thought that this is the level I want to compete at every year.
“There was no part of me that didn’t want to progress further. A taste of that just inspired me to train harder, push on, increase my personal best, get to the World Championships, to the Olympics, get to the next Commonwealth Games.
“That was probably the biggest motivating factor in my career and a huge highlight because I was on the team with guys that I’d watched in previous Olympics and events; people like Dai Greene and Christian Malcolm.
“I was a huge athletics fan, so be on the same team as them was something special. When you’re around that sort of company it definitely raises your game and your spirits.
“It was a really up and down competition for me, I had some personal best performances followed up in the next event by personal worst. I don’t think I’d ever thrown worse in the shot put than I did in Delhi, it just fell apart.
” I had to pick myself up for the high jump and then ran a lifetime best in the 400. It was real up and down. Typically you get yourself in shape and you know roughly where things are going to be across the board, but I was really off the charts lower than I thought and then exceeding my own expectations in what I could do in the other events.”
Four years later in Scotland, Gregory produced a far more consistent performance. “In Glasgow, I was really happy with the way I performed, everything was right on where I expected it to be. It was one of those competitions where you go through it and you’re not unhappy with any single performance.
“You’ve done ok across the board so that adds up to a great score and I set a lifetime best there. So I was really happy with how I handled myself there.”
However, last year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia, proved to be a difficult experience for the athlete. “Unfortunately, at Gold Coast, I twisted my knee a couple of days before taking the start line.
“We were on the warm up track, I was doing my last pole vault session and I landed on the mat and twisted my knee.
“I thought I wasn’t going to compete. I thought I’d gone all that way and I was just heartbroken. The team supported me, the medical staff, they worked around the clock.
“They worked tirelessly just to get me on the start line, so there was a lot of external stress. I definitely felt that I was in the greatest shape of my life two weeks before that competition and then I didn’t even know whether I was going to compete.
“It was really upsetting and the rest of the season took a hit because I tried to come back a bit too soon afterwards and didn’t get the knee quite right. It wasn’t a great year for me personally in the decathlon but it motivated me to push on for the next one.”
Competing for Wales means a huge amount to Gregory, despite growing up in the Home Counties of England.
“My father is Welsh,” he explained, “and for as long as I can remember we have supported Wales in every sporting event. He’s a big sports fan, a big rugby fan, so I think he was quite upset when I ended up choosing track and field!
“He’s from Tredegar. His parents were living there, he grew up there and I’ve been doing the Welsh Championships since under-13s. So it was never a choice of ‘who are you going to compete for’?
“You watch the Commonwealth Games and you want to run on the same team as Christian Malcolm and people like that, you support Wales in the Six Nations. My parents really supported me and pushed me in the right direction.”
Gregory’s off-track career took an unexpected direction during a long jump training session while a student at Loughborough University.
“There was a big group of people with cameras walking about at my training centre and I was doing some long jump.
“They walked across the runway and I said ‘what are you guys doing here’ and they said ‘we’re filming an advert this weekend’.
“I asked whether they needed any long jumpers. I went down the runway and jumped and they said ‘wow, you’re bloody good at that. We’re not shooting long jumpers this week but we need some runners, would you be interested in coming down’?
“I thought, it’s going to be a long day, I’ll probably have lectures or something, but then they said ‘you’ll be paid’. So I said ‘yup, sign me up’!
“I ended up being in an adidas advert with Jonny Wilkinson, Jessica Ennis, Andy Murray and Victoria Pendleton!
” I was just in the background, running and cycling and things like that. I had to be linked to an agency to be paid, so they recommended one. I emailed them and they said they’d love to have me, even though I had never met them.
“In subsequent weeks I got three or four more jobs for fitness magazines, an Asics running shoe commercial and then I flew out to Barcelona to shoot all their running gear for the summer. I was like ‘wow, this is pretty good’.”
Now he is on the books of one of London’s top modelling agencies – W Model Management. “Going forward from there it’s just been something that’s been second to my athletics. If anything clashes it’s track and field that takes priority.
“I’ve had to turn down some amazing jobs that would have taken me around the world because I’m preparing for competitions, or I’ve already got a decathlon that week and I can’t, unfortunately, fly off to Bolivia to be running across the salt flats there and things like that.
“But it ties in perfectly with the athletics because you’re fit, you’re healthy and you’re a role model, so brands can see that.
“Quite often they want something authentic. So if, for whatever reason, Samsung want a hurdler to hurdle over a sofa for an advert. They may ask a load of models if they can hurdle a sofa, and they don’t know the first thing about hurdling, whereas if you get someone who’s from an athletics background, who can do 10 events at international level, I guess it gives me the edge in jobs like that.
“Equally it’s tough because you have to put yourself up for auditions down in London all the time, so it costs me an arm and a leg to go up and down to London and that’s a day out of training, so it’s balancing things and weighing up whether it’s worth my time and missing the training to put myself forward for the job.
“Having more experience now and being in the industry for eight to 10 years, I’ve got plenty of clients who will book me because they know what I’m like, they know what I can do.
“It’s just something that helps fund the training a little bit and it’s been a bit more regular in the past, but I’m open to doing it more in the future.
“It’s not something that I’ll finish athletics and be a full-time model, it’s something that will always run in the background and hopefully take me around the world doing some interesting jobs.”
One way or another, it looks like Ben Gregory is on track to be a model athlete for some considerable time to come.