Athletics: Gritty Grindley goes back to the grind

Andrew Longmore talks to an athlete determined to leave grim times behind
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Anyone with an eye for a talented athlete and a long memory might recall the name of David Grindley. Perhaps you can remember the style too, the cocksure confidence of the 19-year-old from Wigan who came to the Barcelona Olympics as an unknown and left with the future of British 400 metre running assured for the next decade. Grindley finished sixth in the Olympic final, but ran with such complete belief, such lack of fear that the mantle of Coe and Ovett fell readily on to shoulders once considered broad enough for a career in rugby league.

That was just the beginning for Grindley. The following year, he was ranked No 1 in the world and demolished a world-class field in the grand prix final. He clocked 44.47 at the age of 19. The year after that, he injured an Achilles tendon and was forced to watch others win races, his races. It was, he says, the worst year of his life; so much had been snatched away so quickly. He is used to it now.

"It all seems like a very long time ago," he said. "My event has moved on. But what's kept me going is remembering how well I ran at the Olympics and knowing that I have it in me to go quicker. I just need a lucky break." In a sport notoriously short on lucky breaks, few deserve one more. One comeback has ended in failure; another almost ended in retirement two weeks ago in the trials for the world championships which begin in Athens this week. Grindley did not make the team.

"I didn't even make the finals," he said. "I'd trained hard but not consistently enough and I was battling it out for fourth place in the semi-final. All through my career I'd been at the front and something in my psyche said I wasn't used to this." He packed it in before the line, forfeited the embarrassment of finishing last in the final.

"I'd thought I'd pack it in then, go and find a job, do something else. But then I thought of all the people who had backed me, Vicente [Modahl, his coach] and my parents who used to love watching me run. I mean, it's hardly a business deal for Vicente. He's not earning any money from me. But what spurs me on the most is wanting to fulfil my potential. It's still there. I'm only 25."

A year ago, I sat and talked to Grindley at Vicente Modahl's house in the Manchester suburbs. His confidence was coming back and, for the first time, he talked about how low his spirits had fallen. At the time, Modahl was predicting a bright year, a place on the Olympic team was mentioned. Grindley, Modahl said, was running better than ever in his life. He ran his first international race, in Dijon, beating Mark Richardson. A month later, just as the season was promising so much, his Achilles tendon went again. The right leg this time, not the left. A compensatory injury, the doctors called it, though Grindley was sceptical.

"I'd done too many weights, I think. I was heartbroken because it was just a couple of weeks before the Olympic trials and I was running faster than ever. I watched Roger Black break the British record and I tried to get back, but the motivation wasn't there." Instead, Grindley finished his degree in accountancy and finance from the University of Manchester, did some part-time book-keeping for his father and brother-in-law and tried to take his mind off the frustration.

This season he began anew, travelling to South Africa to train in the early months of the year in search of physical and mental commitment. He tried to run 800m and gave it up. His rhythm was all wrong, and his build. It was 400m or nothing. "I was just ticking over. I was really cautious because after so long out you don't want anything else to happen. You lose confidence. I'd have one day training, then take a day off. So when I started racing, you could tell I'd not done the proper background work."

Encouragement came from different sources. From Iwan Thomas, who will lead Britain's 400m challenge in Athens, from Derek Redmond, who survived six operations on his Achilles tendon (three on each leg) to run in the Olympics, from his club colleagues at Wigan Harriers, who chivvy Grindley on cold afternoons in sparsely populated outbacks. From watching Diane Modahl struggle to clear her name ("her problems were ten times worse than mine"). From almost everyone except the British Athletics Federation, who barely noticed.

Another season has gone now, and you sense that Grindley's mind and body cannot take much more punishment. Grindley will dig in this winter and aim for the European Championships next season. This week he will watch the world championships on television with a fatalistic smile, not with the curtains closed, awash in self-pity. "I've got past that stage now," he said. "I've grown up a lot."