Dai Greene: 'The season I was having, I felt I could not lose'

Interview No 6: Welsh hurdler tells Simon Turnbull how he refused to let nasty illness stop him taking two golds this year and joining world's elite
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The Independent Online

No British athlete has cleared as many barriers in 2010 as Dai Greene, in the literal or metaphorical sense. The 400m hurdler from the west Wales rugby bastion of Llanelli ventured to the fringes of true world class last year when he made the World Championship final in Berlin, finishing seventh. Over the past 12 months the 24-year-old has pushed on into global elite territory, capturing the European Championship title in Barcelona in July, smashing through the 48-seconds barrier and claiming the scalp of world No 1 Bershawn Jackson of the United States en route to victory at the IAAF Continental Cup in Split in September, and crowning the season of his life with gold at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October.

Greene had to dig deep to wrest the Commonwealth title from Louis van Zyl in the Indian capital, pulling clear of the South African off the final hurdle after a too-close-for-comfort battle up the home straight. Greene crossed the line the victor by 0.11sec, before setting off on a lap of honour with a Wales flag draped around his shoulders and the sound of Tom Jones and "Delilah" blasting over the public address system at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.

It was a memorable moment that might never have been. Just two weeks earlier Greene had collapsed on the training track at a pre-Games preparation camp in Doha and was still under the weather when he got to Delhi and ran in the heats. It was typical of the self-effacing Swansea Harrier that he chose to keep his troubles under wraps. He did not want to offer any excuse in the event of what would have been considered a shock defeat.

"It happened at the holding camp in Qatar," Greene says. "I had three days of easy training to get over the time difference, then went to the track to do a fast session – three 200m runs. After the first 200m, I just collapsed on the track and couldn't get up. I was sort of hyperventilating. The doctors had to come on and take me away on a buggy.

"I didn't train for the rest of the time we were in Qatar. I was just sleeping all the time. I didn't eat much and got dehydrated, the works. By the time I got to Delhi I was slowly getting over it and I managed to do one hurdle run before I was meant to race.

"It was very, very touch and go whether I'd be able to recover in time. After I ran in the heats I was really struggling to stay on my feet. I was so tired I just wanted to lie on the floor. I was absolutely shattered. It took so much out of me. By the final, I felt a lot better and a lot more with it, so I was quite fortunate in the end.

"When we were coming down the home straight, Van Zyl's trail arm was catching my shoulder, which was knocking me slightly off balance. Every time he clipped me, I had to regain my balance again, kick back into it. I knew it was close but I always felt that I was going to win and my finish from the last hurdle to the line was the fastest I've ever done.

"Had it been four months earlier, right at the start of the season, I might have possibly crumbled or tightened up in that situation. But given how it had panned out for me during the season I just felt I couldn't lose, really."

Watching from the stands, Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics, must have smiled in satisfaction. The hard taskmaster of a Great Britain track and field team leader does not exactly have a surfeit of genuine contenders for places on the medal podium as the London Olympics loom on the horizon. Greene, confirming his stature in the teeth of adversity in Delhi, has taken a step up into that bracket in 2010.

Just over 18 months out from the 2012 Games, the former Swansea City youth team footballer – who once upon a time scored a penalty against Real Madrid's juniors in a pre-season tournament – is Britain's third best bet for a medal in the showpiece athletics arena, behind the heptathlete Jessica Ennis and triple jumper Phillips Idowu, both reigning world champions.

In Barcelona, Greene won his European title in emphatic fashion, finishing 0.84sec clear of his training partner Rhys Williams in 48.12sec. At the Continental Cup in Split he clocked the fastest time since the days of Ed Moses in a competition that was formerly known as the World Cup, beating Jackson and Puerto Rican Javier Culson - both medallists at last year's World Championships – in 47.88sec. In doing so, Greene ventured within 0.06sec of the British record set by the laughing cavalier of the 400m hurdles, Kriss Akabusi, at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Akabusi sent him a text message, saying, "David Greene? Close but no cigar". "I was more excited with his text message than with running 47.88," Greene says. "He said he would be pleased for the record to go to me, and that it would only be a matter of time.

"His praise and credit meant a lot to me. It's getting the respect of your elders, in a way. He was from a golden age of British athletics and we're trying to recreate that now, with the Olympics coming up."

Greene could hardly be in better hands as he strives to play his part in the great British athletics revival. He trains at the University of Bath under the direction of Malcolm Arnold, who guided Uganda's John Akii-Bua to Olympic 400m hurdles gold in world-record time in Munich in 1972 and who moulded Colin Jackson into a world record-breaking 110m hurdler.

"Malcolm brings a steely determination to the training group in Bath," Greene says. It has clearly rubbed off on him, judging by the mettle shown by the young man from the west Wales steel town down the home straight in Delhi.