Late-Blooming Gregorek Breaks 3:50 Barrier

At the end of the Boston race Johnny Gregorek was only a 10th shy of claiming the American Record. (KEVIN MORRIS)

“I shocked myself pretty bad with that one,” says Johnny Gregorek, who scared the American Record with his 3:49.98 to take 2nd in Yomif Kejelcha’s World Record mile. “I knew I was ready to PR. The track is known to be fast and the race was going to be set up to be fast. I went in there with the mindset of racing and running as fast as I could. I just wanted to compete well against those guys. I wasn’t really looking at the clock. “I just kept picking it up, picking it up, picking it up.”

The 27-year-old journeyman miler was hoping to nail a time under 3:53.00 to make the World Championships Q-standard: “That’s the No. 1 thing I had in mind.” He was stunned to read the clock afterward. Coached by Frank Gagliano since he left Oregon in ’15, Gregorek says, “It just goes to show that anything can really happen if you trust your fitness and go for it.”

Gregorek’s road to the elite has been anything but fast. “I haven’t ever been touted or praised as any sort of superstar,” he admits. “I’ve had a lot more failures than I’ve had successes, a lot more bad races than I’ve had good ones.” (continues)

From early on in his life, he knew his parents were into running. “There were always boxes of all these dusty uniforms that had ‘USA’ on them and all these running shoes all over the basement. I knew that they were good runners but it wasn’t the most impressive thing to me when I was young. You’ve got to go out and run for yourself and see how hard it is.

“And then I ran a couple of races as a freshman in high school. ‘I’ve just run 5-something in the mile.’ ” And then he looked up his dad’s time. “It was like, ‘Oh wow! OK, 3:51. That’s pretty quick for the old man.’ ”

Dad in this case is John Gregorek, 2-time Olympian who turned out marks including a 3:35.3 for 1500, 3:51.34 for the mile, 8:18.45 steeple and 13:17.44 for the 5000. Mom could run too. Chris (Mullen) Gregorek starred for Georgetown where she was runner-up in the AIAW Championships. She earned 5 U.S. Rankings at 800 (PR 2:00.06) and one at 1500, where her best was 4:08.02 (and 4:29.00 for the mile). Says dad, “We never pushed any of our children to do anything, so if it was meant to be, it was going to be coming from them.”

The younger Gregorek joined cross country to stay in shape for baseball and “it snowballed from there.” But was he a prodigy? No. In high school he miled 4:15.18, a far cry from his dad’s 4:05.4 as a prep. He won a couple of state titles in Massachusetts’ smallest division. At Columbia, he became a steeplechaser, an event dad had World Ranked in while at Georgetown. He won the IC4A title in ’12 and the next year PRed at 8:52.85.

“The steeplechase was kind of beating me up,” he explains. “And I was having more fun in the mile.” When he started concentrating on the 4-lapper, he got results, running a best of 4:01.65 and placing 6th in the NCAA Indoor.

With a year of eligibility left over after graduation, Gregorek went west to run for Oregon. “Coach [Andy] Powell gave me a chance and I figured, ‘I’ll see what else I can do here.’” That winter, he clocked his first sub-4:00, a 3:57.47 at the Millrose Games. A month later, he took 4th in the NCAA Indoor. Outdoors, he followed a winning Penn Relays DMR leadoff with a 3:40.89 to make the NCAA 1500 final.

What to do then? Gregorek says, “At every turn, I’ve always considered hanging up my spikes and moving forward with my life, getting a full-time job. But it’s always just been like, ‘Well, let me see what else I can do here.’ Coach Gags reached out and gave me an opportunity and Asics was generous enough to sponsor me. I figured, ‘I‘ll give it another year and see where it takes me and if I can get the best out of myself.’”

The younger Gregorek has one big advantage, says dad: “He just has a good mental balance. He’s learned not to get too high on the high days and not to get too low on the low days. That will serve him well continuing on.”

Training under Gagliano and alongside his friends in the New Jersey*New York TC, he has seen steady progress. In ’16, he hit a PR 3:36.04 and got his first U.S. Ranking. The next year, he finished 3rd at USATF and guaranteed his spot on the World Champs team with a 3:35.00 PR two weeks later. He made the finals in London, finishing 10th in 3:37.56 and ranking No. 1 among U.S. milers. Last season he placed 9th at USATF and in August ran a mile best of 3:54.53.

Now the newlywed Gregorek (on January 5, to his high school sweetheart Amy) is looking ahead. “I’ve been really trying to train myself to be up there and either pushing the pace or breathing down the neck of whoever’s in the front.”

He adds, “I still have yet to find the best out of myself and I still keep finding more and more reasons to keep going. So as long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”