Thirteen months ago, Johnny Gregorek was still reveling in arguably the best race of his life, a 3:49.98 indoor mile he ran in Boston. It made him and his dad, John Gregorek, the fastest father-son miler duo in history. The performance also cemented Johnny among the country’s rising middle-distance runners and proved his world championship appearance two years ago wasn’t just luck. He remained a valid candidate for an Olympic berth for Tokyo 2020.
But in the months that followed, Gregorek struggled to recreate the 3:49 magic during his outdoor campaign. In March 2019, Gregorek’s younger brother, Patrick, suddenly passed away at the age of 21. As much as he wouldn’t admit it at first, the emotional impact took its toll and Gregorek didn’t race again until mid-May.
“Johnny’s never been one to make excuses and he’s also very private,” Gregorek’s father says. “He didn’t want to talk much about what was going on, but we knew how difficult it was to toe the line and get out there. He also wanted to try to do well and had some extra pressure because even though he wouldn’t say it, he wanted to do well in his brother’s memory. That was weighing on him. He’s coming out on the other side and we all are as a family.”
Gregorek raced through the summer, reached another U.S. Championship final in the 1,500 meters but failed to qualify for his second world championship team. After a somewhat redemptive silver medal run at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Gregorek was prepared to decompress, regroup for the 2020 season and qualify for his first Olympic team, just like his old man.
“I like to think that in 2020, I have an equal amount of momentum and faith in myself to come through in 2021 and continue the ol’ Gregorek Olympian tradition,” Johnny says.
John Gregorek was 20 years old and a rising junior at Georgetown when he qualified for the 1980 Games in Moscow in the steeplechase. However, Gregorek was forced to wait four years to fulfill his Olympic aspirations, after President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the Summer Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“It was certainly unexpected that I made the team,” John says. “Being young and naive, I thought I made it now, I’ll make it again in four years and [I] realized it’s not that easy. Not that I thought it would be, I was 20. I was in a position hoping ’84 and ’88 would be my shot. There were so many individuals where that was their last chance and it was difficult.”
Members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic track and field team were invited to the 2008 trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. The athletes each got a plus-one to the opening ceremony and a trip to the state capitol in Salem. Most athletes brought their spouses but John’s wife, Christine (who was also an accomplished middle-distance runner who competed at the 1984 Olympic Trials in the 800 and 1,500 meters), suggested Johnny attend the trials as a 16-year-old. Gregorek beams when recalling that trip and compares it to Christmas morning, with Johnny soaking up the experience and meeting past stars of the sport.
“Since then, it’s been a dream of mine to do it myself,” Johnny says.
40 years later, Johnny’s dream has also been put on hold, as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed for one year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Both father and son are in agreement that a voluntary boycott of the Olympics does not compare to the situation at hand, where more than 800,000 people have reported confirmed cases from a disease that has killed more than 41,000 across 171 countries. But they have been able to connect on the sentiment of an Olympic dream.
“I believe I can make the Olympics team and I know I can compete on that stage but I’m approaching it with a more healthy, broad mindset of I just want to be the best runner I can be,” Johnny says. “That will probably line up with being an Olympian and it if it doesn’t, that’s fine too.”
Typically, Gregorek will meet with about 20 of his New Jersey-New York Track Club teammates for track sessions at The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., or workouts at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Weightlifting and strength training sessions are held in groups at Athletes Warehouse, a facility in Pleasantville, N.Y. But recently, Gregorek is primarily running alone, working out of a self-assembled gym in his basement and doing core work as his wife, Amy, teaches English class over Zoom in their Westchester home.
“That’s all been stripped down to the barebones of the sport, which is going for runs alone,” Gregorek says.
The NJ-NY team was fairly quick to cut down on its group training as news associated with the COVID-19 virus escalated. Gregorek was running with two or three other teammates at a safe and social distance until mid-March, when any group exercise was discouraged to slow the spread of the disease. Members of the team are not as concerned about how the virus may affect them but more so about the more vulnerable people in attendance at practice, like 83-year-old coach Frank Gagliano (affectionately known as “Gags” to the running community).
“It would be easy as runners to be like ‘Oh we’ll just go out and be in a big pack since we’re young and that’s fine,’ but in reality, we all know the severity of it,” Gregorek says. “Coach Gags needs to stay healthy. He’s a person who is so important to us, so close to home and such a big part of our lives. Him being a person who would be at-risk makes it so much more real.”
Gregorek has also cancelled any plans of visiting his father and mother, Christine, in Seekonk, Mass., since they also live with Johnny’s grandparents.
While athletes from major sports have had their respective seasons suspended, many were granted permission to return home to their families. But as spring races on the track and roads were being cancelled across the country, many professional runners have primarily stayed put. Opportunities to make money and hit qualifying times were suddenly gone. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee lagged in its push to postpone the Games, so many athletes proceeded as normal in training and with a pandemic in mind.
“You feel a little a little bit of strain that’s affecting your motivation and your ability to completely think straight, especially with so much uncertainty going forward,” Gregorek says. “You feel more tired.”
As is the case with most Olympic sports, there is an economic disparity in the economics of professional track and field. Some athletes sign contracts with footwear and apparel sponsors (like Gregorek with Asics) that allow for them to focus solely on training to make the Olympics. Others, like a few members of the New Jersey-New York Track Club, only receive gear and smaller stipends while working other jobs in their pursuit of fast times. The common end goal is to make the Olympics and attain the Olympian title for life, which opens doors for future opportunities such as sponsorships, appearance fees and public speaking engagements. As fast as your personal best may be, the everyday sports fan doesn’t know the 2017 world championship finalist, but attaching “Olympian” to your name is a gamechanger.
“It’s definitely been a strain on everybody,” Johnny says. “People are just trying to stay focused and do what they can on a daily basis to try and be the best version of themselves through training.
Few runners have the luxury of being able to train through an extra year with contract checks continuing to arrive. Those runners who work multiple jobs on the NJ-NY team have been limited in the capacity to work from home or put on hold during these economically unsettling times. Others will be faced with the decision to continue training or retire upon their contract’s expiration at the end of 2020.
“When we do get back to racing, whenever that may be in June, July or August, then they’ll be able to do it at the highest level possible,” Johnny says. “On the whole, I think we’re going to see a pretty big explosion in performances and intensity of racing because of this starvation for competition that we’re seeing as a sport.”