Crashing to the track in a water pit, snapping an Achilles tendon and being carted away in a wheelchair made for “pure heartbreak”.
But 14 months after the Tokyo Olympic campaign of Australia’s Genevieve Gregson ended in misery in the women’s 3000-metre steeplechase final, the star runner from Queensland feels “superhuman”.
It’s not just a hiccup-free comeback from an Achilles rupture that’s made the 33-year-old feel invincible, but a dream experience as a first-time mum and promising shift from the track to the marathon.
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“I would say the surprise is that my body has just had a whole second wind, really, at running again,” Gregson told Wide World of Sports.
“I mean, (considering how I was) leading into Tokyo it was no surprise to me that I did such a major injury because I had been battling Achilles problems for years, pretty much since Rio (the 2016 Rio Olympics).
“I think when you rupture your Achilles the first thought in your head is your career is over. And then even when I decided that I didn’t want my career to be over I still had many doubts (with) rehabbing that and coming back from such a major setback.
“But juggling that and being so pregnant for most of the rehab and then having another surgery when I was 20 weeks pregnant, I think the surprise has been it’s just been such a smooth comeback, really.
“I don’t know if that’s perspective or that I was expecting the worst.
“But I’ve sat down with my physio and strength-and-conditioning coach many times and talked about everything we’ve documented, and it’s really just been so smooth … I genuinely feel like my body feels better than ever.
“I don’t know if I’ll get as fast as I ever was. I think I will.
“But the biggest surprise is just how good I feel waking up in the morning and going for a two-hour long run. I’ve never done that in my career, but now that I’m transitioning to longer distances I am trying to up my long run and stay out there for longer, and my body’s just handling it so well.”
Gregson and her husband, fellow Olympic runner Ryan Gregson, welcomed their first child in June.
Gregson credits the ease with which she’s tackled motherhood to her “phenomenal” husband and a relocation to Brisbane, where her mum jumps at every chance to babysit their beloved Archer.
The three-time Olympian competed in the 3000-metre steeplechase at the 2012, 2016 and 2021 Games, and has held the Australian record in the event since August 2016, when she clocked 9:14.28 in a Diamond League race in Paris.
But she’s now gunning for a spot on the Australian marathon team at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The difficulty of that challenge is not lost on Gregson, who admits she’s stepping up in distance after a “marathon boom”.
It was only this month that Sinead Diver sliced 62 seconds off the national record in Valencia. The 45-year-old is the only woman to have locked in a place on Australia’s Olympic marathon team, having satisfied the standard within the qualification window.
Six of the 10 fastest Australian female marathoners in history have either already earned selection on the Paris Olympic marathon team or are targeting it, in Diver, Lisa Weightman, Eloise Wellings, Jessica Stenson, Ellie Pashley and Milly Clark.
Stenson won Commonwealth Games gold in the marathon in Birmingham in July and backed it up with another superb run in the New York City Marathon, posting 2:27:27 to be the ninth woman home.
Making the scramble for selection even fiercer is Izzi Batt-Doyle, who finished second in this year’s Melbourne Marathon in the highly respectable time of 2:28:10, and Leanne Pompeani, who’s yet to make her marathon debut but has emerged as a powerful force in 2022.
Pompeani, who was the first female home in this year’s City to Surf and clinched the women’s national 10,000-metre title this month, wants to contest the marathon at the Paris Olympics.
Diver and two other Australian women will be on the start line when the gun is fired.
“The hardest part about it is the fact that I’m coming into marathons a bit later, after the marathon boom’s already happened,” Gregson said.
“We used to think that if you ran just under 2:30 you made a (senior Australian) team, whereas now I think you’re going to have to run under 2:25 to make a team, which is just down to the caliber of female distance runners in Australia at the moment.
“But something that I really thrive off is … I would say my coach’s most successful event in coaching is the women’s marathon. He (Nic Bideau) has had so much success. I don’t know of any girl he’s coached in the marathon who hasn’t had a huge breakthrough. So I’m in the best hands for this event and I’ve just got to hope I can do the work and do what he gives me.
“I don’t doubt that I can be up with those girls.
“(Making the) top three will be the hardest part because if everyone’s firing at the same time it’ll come down to who’s the fastest.”
Gregson says she’s also buoyed by her love of an against-the-odds fight as she eyes the Olympic marathon.
“I think when I look back on my career there were probably moments that I thought were challenging at the time, but when I compare them to what I’m taking on right now nothing really compares,” Gregson said.
“But I’ve always been an athlete that does better when my back’s against the wall. I think any time that I’ve been content with where I’m at I actually haven’t really had a great year, and any major leaps in my running that I’ve had in the past were because I was coming off some sort of an injury, or a doubt that someone had in me, or I was being threatened off funding.
“And I can’t think of anything better than coming off such a major injury and the birth of my first child. There’s not many more hurdles I need in front of me to make me want to really beat this challenge.”
Gregson has built her weekly kilometers to 110 on the road back from the Achilles rupture and pregnancy, and plans to consistently churn out 140-kilometre weeks when she’s ready.
She’s hoping to next don green and gold at the 44th edition of the World Cross Country Championships, set to be held in the New South Wales town of Bathurst in February.
Shorter events such as the 10-kilometre World Cross Country Championships hit-out shape as valuable races in Gregson’s transition to the marathon.
The Launceston 10, Sydney Running Festival 10 and five-kilometre Noosa Bolt were among a host of races Gregson ran over the second half of this year, fueling her competitive drive.
“I think that’s one thing that you do need when you face such a huge comeback like rupturing your Achilles and having a baby at the same time,” Gregson said of her return to racing.
“I knew it was going to be a really long time off, but that didn’t really scare me or make me feel, ‘Oh, I’m not that motivated; it’s so far away’.
“Really, as soon as I could I was back running and as soon as I could I was back racing.
“My times aren’t competitive yet, but I really do love competing, I love getting out there, I love the whole feeling: the nerves, the night-before preparation. I love all of that about racing and I think for me that’s really been the carrot dangling: to get back to a race where I am expecting myself to be on the podium again or win a race.
“I do still think I have a few more months before I’m there.”
Regardless of how the 19 months between now and the Paris Olympics pan out, Gregson can be immensely proud of how far she’s already come.
“What I felt back in Tokyo I’ve never experienced before,” she said.
“It was pure heartbreak in its finest form for an athlete.
“Tokyo was the year where I thought I would be able to prove to everyone just how good I was.
“I always said to myself, ‘Don’t worry, in a year’s time or in two years’ time you’ll look back to this moment and it’ll just be a blur or a blip in the past’. I feel like I can do that now and I just feel so strong because of it … I know I can handle anything that comes my way.
“To have got through all this while managing having a baby and enjoyed every bit of it … I feel superhuman right now and I just don’t think anything will be able to stop me.”
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