How Greene boy from the valleys overcame hurdles

#SJA2011: Wales has delivered at least one world champion this year, and Cardiff-based SJA member GARY BAKER wants to encourage all voters to back 400m hurdles gold medal-winner Dai Greene

Dai Greene: triple international champion after his gold at Daegu this year

On a floodlit night at the SportCity athletics track alongside the City of Manchester Stadium in 2007, almost unnoticed Dai Greene hobbled off to the changing area, hisĀ  hopes of a place in the British team for the world championships apparently ruined.

For weeks, Greene had been limping around with an ankle injury which demanded at least a month’s rest and recovery. Greene’s event, the 400 metres hurdles, is hard enough when fit, but when he could hardly walk let alone run, the event is rendered impossible.

It would have been easy for Greene to pull out but, having battled through the pain barrier in Hungary just a few weeks before to take the European under-23s gold medal. But that night in Manchester, Greene was determined to at least give it a go.

He jogged a couple of steps down the track in warm-up but quickly realised that it was not going to happen. The 2007 world championships in Osaka had gone for him and that was that.

Yet within four years, the young man from West Wales, where rugby union is king and football nearly claimed him, has now amassed the titles of world, European and Commonwealth champion at one of the toughest races on the athletics programme, someone confident enough, and tough enough, to take on American 400m hurdlers such as Bershawn Jackson and Kerron Clement and beat them.

In 2008, Greene changed coaches, linking up with one of Wales’s, and Britain’s, all-time finest coaches, Malcolm Arnold. As a young man, Arnold had guided Uganda’s John Akii-Bua to Olympic gold in Munich in 1972, and who later nurtured the immense talents of Colin Jackson to two world titles and a world record at 110m hurdles. Now Greene looked to learn from the old master, whose training group already included an established international hurdler in Rhys Williams.

It meant the man from Felinfoel switching from Wales to the University of Bath’s state-of-the-art facilities. It seemed to work. Greene made it to Berlin for the 2009 world championships this time and into the final.

With a crew cut hairstyle and exceptional confidence, he stood in lane six as the starter called them to order. Alongside him were those modern day giants of 400m hurdling. One lane was occupied Jackson, the American who was bronze medalists in the previous year’s Beijing Olympics.

On the next lane inside was Felix Sanchez, the Dominican Republic’s Athens Olympic Games champion, while, in lane three, was Clement, the reigning world champion and Beijing silver medalist.

Greene finished seventh in that Berlin final, in 48.68sec – just 0.06sec slower than the personal best he had registered earlier that summer.

It was a start but still not good enough. The real global champion was coming to the surface.

"Thoroughly Welsh": Greene hurdling his way to Commonwealth Games gold for Wales last year

Off the track, Greene is a thoroughly nice man and will never pass by a fan seeking an autograph without signing it. For sports reporters, he retains that old-school ability of always returning phone calls for a quick chat on his latest race or recent training. He is also thoroughly Welsh, and that was never better displayed than when storming home to win the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold in Delhi, proudly parading the Dragon national flag to the crowd on his victory lap around that hot, sticky arena.

It also takes real steel and confidence to believe you can do it when the odds are stacked against you. Greene has that in spades. In the months after those Commonwealth Games, the hurdler and his mentor planned and trained with gold medal in Deagu, Korea, this summer transfixed in their minds.

Without even a suggestion of arrigance, before last summer’s European championships in Barcelona, Greene had said: “If I can be the best in Europe, then I can be the best in the world.”

When that time came around in Daegu on September 1, Greene was ready to prove it, too. Few had rated his chances before the championships, even British-based bookmakers – notoriously frugal when pricing up even the most remote chances in Britain’s team – chalked up Greene as no better than a 7/1 shot for gold.

Come the final, and out in lane six, the Welshman did no more than keep pace with the field for the first 300 metres, before Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson sped to the front with 100 metres and three barriers left.

But while Culson and his better regarded American rivals have clocked faster times in one-off Grand Prix circuit races, Greene, working with Arnold, had prepared cleverly for the three tough rounds and the gruelling heat and humidity encountered by all the athletes in Korea.

Thus, at the UK trials a month earlier, Greene had not done the obvious and won a facile 400m hurdles national title, but had instead kept working in intensive training and raced the flat 400 to fulfil the selection requirements. It helped further hone his flat speed – vital to his armoury down the home straight in Daegu.

And so it was that, as Culson and the American favourites, with the fatigue of three races in four days now flooding their legs with lactate and making their lungs burn, Greene had the strength and finishing power to hunt down his rivals in the final straight to claim the world title – the first time a British man had won the 400m hurdles on a global stage since David Hemery in 1968.

Greene had found his place among the global elite. But if anyone things Greene is done and dusted now, then they are wrong.

Greene has been used to overcoming hurdles throughout his life, from his childhood asthma to his ankle injury four years ago, so 10 3ft high barriers on a circuit of the track is never too daunting for him. Now not just Wales, but Britain and the whole world of athletics knows – and fears – Dai Greene. Welsh sport and media think he thoroughly deserves the SJA Sportsman of the Year award for 2011 and hope everyone will vote for him as well.

SJA WORKING LUNCH: Baroness Grey-Thompson on the 2012 London Paralympics. Thu Nov 17: click here for booking details