By Rob Cole
Looking for the sporting comeback of the year? Then keep your eyes peeled on Dai Greene on the Gold Coast this week.
If the former World 400 metre hurdles champion’s amazing comeback continues to gather pace, and ends in some form of medal glory for Wales at the Commonwealth Games, then his fight back to fitness will surely go down as one of the bravest of them all.
The fact he was able to take up his place in Team Wales for Games in Australia is testimony to his resilience and determination. After five years of injury hell he made the qualifying time with six days to spare.
For an athlete who conquered the world in 2011, and is the second fastest Briton behind Kriss Akabusi with a personal best time of 47.84 sec, the target of 49.50 sec may have appeared pretty modest. But after four groin operations, those five years of injuries and a number of false dawns it was as tough as any goal he had ever set himself in his career.
Three races in South Africa were his last chance of resurrecting a career that scaled the heights between 2010-2012, yet appeared to be petering out with a whimper.
But that perception was blown to pieces on two nights in the space of three days as the 31-year-old Welshman proved that form is temporary, but class is permanent.
A winning time of 49.49 sec in Potchefstroom finally clinched his ticket to Australia. An even faster time of 49.38 sec in Johannesburg hammered out a clear message to those who had written him off – including the two former Commonwealth champions he beat in the process, the South African duo of LJ van Zyl and Constant Pretorius.
The fact he had won Commonwealth, European and World titles in the past gave him the belief to carry on while even some of his closest confidantes were suggesting it might be time to hang up his spikes. He wasn’t able to race at all last summer, didn’t finish his comeback race in November and needed to run faster than he had since 2013 to make the Welsh team for a record equalling fourth Games for an athlete.
Four groin operations forced him to fall from the top of the world to a very uncomfortable, unfunded rock bottom position last year where he was merely doing some slow jogging. Everyone thought it was all over for a man who had topped the podium at Commonwealth, European and World championships, other than him.
“It has been a long, slow road back, but now I feel good again. My love of athletics has kept me going. I’ve only got a few more years left to do this, so I want to make the most of it,” said Greene, who is hoping to mark his 32ndbirthday on 11 April by clinching a place in the 400 hurdles final.
“I feel as though there is still something left in me and now I believe I am being rewarded for my perseverance. There have been plenty of times over the past few years when people suggested to me I should give up, but my answer to them was always the same – I’m going to keep on going.”
The rest of the Commonwealth has been put on alert by Greene’s exploits and that includes the man who has assumed his mantle as Britain’s No 1, Jack Green. Although Green missed out on a World Championships final spot in London last year, he topped the UK rankings with a best time of 48.77 sec.
That put him fifth on the Commonwealth rankings and marked him out as a medal contender Down Under, but his predecessor as the UK’s best one-lap hurdler, Greene, wants to get in the mix and shake things up a bit.
When he flew triumphantly from Johannesburg to the Gold Coast last month he stood proudly at No 3 in the world for 2018!
He cites American Kerron Clement and Dominican Republic star Felix Sanchez as his inspirations in the battle to return to the top. Clement was world champion in 2007 and 2009, but had to wait until 2016 to win an Olympic title.
He ran his best time in 2005, yet was second in the world rankings in 2017. Sanchez won the world title in 2001 and 2003, became Olympic champion in 2004, but then had to wait eight years for his second Olympic title at the age of 34.
“Just look at what Clement and Sanchez achieved in their 30s. They were at their peak in their early twenties, but had to reinvent themselves to come back to the top,” said Greene.
“Why can’t I be the person who comes back from obscurity and reaches the top again? This will probably be my last Commonwealth Games, but I want to keep going for as long as I can at a reasonable level.
“It would be foolish and disrespectful to say I was going to win gold. I want to do well, not just go there and make up the numbers, and I have ambitions to reach the final.
“That’s a good thing to aim at. I’m training fully now, but I still need to ensure I don’t do too much too soon – it is one small step at a time.
“I don’t think what has happened to me over the past five years has changed me too much, even though they have been pretty sh****. It has made me appreciate even more being fit and healthy, but now I feel as good as I did when I was at my best and I really feel I am capable of getting back to those levels.”
It he does get back to running at his previous gold medal levels it will merely underline the determination and commitment he has shown at a time when the easiest thing would have been to have bowed out gracefully and lived off the fact he is one of only nine British male athletes to win an individual World Championship title.
“One failed groin operation led to three others and I just felt I hadn’t been looked after properly. I was sent to the wrong person and the first operation didn’t go well. I had some mesh put in and then had to have it removed,” said Greene.
“I had three or four months off again last year, was able to do some slow jogging in June, but wasn’t able to training properly until September. I went to South Africa in November to try to get the qualification time, but didn’t finish the race.”
It has been hit or miss ever since he finished fourth at the London Olympics in 2012, when he was the British men’s team captain. As the injury problems mounted, so his funding options dried up and his resole was tested even more.
He has had to fund his training and search for races out of his own pocket and even paid to return to Cardiff from a training camp in Tenerife to appeal the original decision by Team Wales not to accept his nomination from Welsh Athletics for a place on the team.
49.49s for the win this evening! Booking my spot for the Commonwealth Games. Major thanks to coach @hurdlesub13 for making this possible. The fun part of the journey is just beginning pic.twitter.com/CnSKfFhk3h
— Dai Greene (@DaiGreene) February 27, 2018
“When Team Wales didn’t accept my nomination I decided I had to appeal my case personally to try to change what I believed was a misunderstanding of my position and in their perception of me. Thankfully they listened to me and gave me a chance to prove myself,” he said.
“I was sponsored for the first few years I was injured, and Welsh Athletics have given me some fantastic support recently, but I haven’t had any sponsorship or funding since the end of 2016. I’ve been doing something I love, but not doing something that earns me a living.
“I love training, working hard and racing. I was never going to give up, even though I have had live off the money I earned in the past. I’ve never been financially motivated. I’m motivated by going to major championships and winning medals.”
Just how far that motivation will take him is anyone’s guess. But nobody can afford to write him off after his recent exploits in South Africa.