A little over a year has passed since Mid-Ulster’s Nick Griggs produced one of the most memorable performances in an Irish singlet, taking gold in the 3000m at the European U20 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. Since then, Griggs has risen to heights barely imaginable for the Tyrone teenager in the months and years preceding, sweeping up an array of underage national records, earlier in the year adding the European U20 mile record to an already packed list of personal accolades. In just over a weeks' time, Griggs will take to the line of the men’s 3000m at the World U20 Championships in Cali, Columbia.
Despite his meteoric rise through the athletics ranks, Griggs speaks in remarkably humble fashion while referencing his achievements of the past twelve months. Remaining focused on negotiating his GCSE’s, of which he will complete the final round of next year, the Tyrone teenager insists nothing has changed him as a person as a result of his success.
“When you break it down, you’re still just going to school, training, doing your schoolwork and gym work, nothing changes. It doesn't mean because I ran a quick time or won a medal here or there that I become a bigger person, it doesn't affect your ego at all, I’m still the same guy that just over a year ago was begging for a chance to get into a 5k after grinding for nine months straight”.
A summer of success
That 5k referred to by Griggs is the one which saw him first announce his arrival on the Irish athletics scene in May of 2021, his quality laid bare to witness for all in attendance at the Mary Peters track at the North Belfast Harriers meeting. On that day, the then unknown 16 year-old clocked 14:15.98, setting a new Irish U18 record in the process. It was evident Griggs possessed a special unpolished talent, one which saw him go to the European U20 Championships last July as a genuine medal contender, duly delivering on that potential.
“Last summer was a whirlwind, everything just seemed to fall into line, I still don't really know how it happened, I was basically winning most races, and it was like where is this kid coming from?”.
Finding opportunity in the madness
Griggs likes to emphasize the opportunity the covid lockdown in early 2020 provided for his running to thrive. In turn developing him as a more rounded athlete and instilling a greater focus on his academics, something he admits he did not possess as he progressed through his early school years.
“Up to third year I had the ability but never worked, I was thinking, I’m naturally smart here, I don’t need to revise at all. In fourth year , everything kind of came crashing down, I wasn’t doing well because I didn't know how to revise, I didn't know how to put the work in, but lockdown and running changed all that.”
Learning the hard way
Despite his somewhat reckless training protocols of that time, Griggs had developed a discipline beyond his years, calloused to the rigors of repeated daily runs, seven days a week. A substantial ask for the most seasoned of athletes, he slowly began to come around to the realization that he would need to find a more optimal way of training, learning the hard way, but learning nonetheless. Nick firmly believes that people across all walks of life can benefit from a daily hobby, to add a positive focus to life outside of just sport.
“I try to say this to everyone, do a sport or find a hobby that keeps you dedicated and organized. To fit it in around school, you need to be organized. If you work hard at one thing in life, you want it to carry over to another, but if you're just lazy and lacklustre, that's going to carry over to other elements of life too”.
Dealing with grief
For a young man of 17, Griggs displays an admirably stoic persona. Something which he has had to draw on in the darkest of days since the passing of his brother and best-friend Josh on the 8th June 2021. Refusing to let grief engulf him, Nick instead channelled it towards doing his brother proud when he took to the track against Europe’s best just six weeks later in Tallinn, insisting he owed it to his late brother to “run his heart out”. Incredibly, Nick recalls the only day he didn’t run in the week following Josh’s death, was the Friday he was laid to rest.
“He wouldn’t have wanted me to lie on the sofa and do nothing, he would have wanted me to keep working and that’s probably why Estonia was the best thing ever because it gave me that focus at a time when I could have just crumbled and lay crippled in my bed.”
Doing his late brother proud
There is undeniable regret that Josh hasn’t been around to experience the immense pride of seeing his younger brother take the first steps on the journey to realizing his ultimate goal of becoming an Olympian. Nick acknowledges he does occasionally ponder how things may have been different, had life not have taken such a cruel turn when tragedy struck the Griggs family on that fateful June day.
“In my mind I want to say yes, that I would have done everything the exact same and I would have won that gold medal (in Tallinn) and I would have broken those records, but I don’t know if for certain I could say that”.
While Griggs is an avid believer that ‘everything happens for a reason’ both on and off the track, he admits that it has been a struggle to piece together any sort of logical explanation as to why he was so tragically robbed of his older brother. He credits running as one of the tools that has helped him navigate the grief of the sudden loss.
Having made national headlines on the track throughout the summer of 2021, it was perhaps no surprise that Griggs went into last December’s European Cross Country in Dublin carrying a heavy burden of expectation on his young shoulders, of which he believes was somewhat unjustified despite what had gone before. In the end, Griggs fought arduously for 16th place on the day, helping the U20 Irish team to a silver medal. He confesses it was a day of mixed emotions, with his first reaction being that of disappointment, as he fell to his knees despondently after crossing the line in Abbotstown.
“I’ve tried to think about the performance less and the experience more, because I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything better, coming down that home straight, it was deafening noise, it was incredible”.
The initial disappointment on a personal level dissipated for a time after, as Griggs fondly recalls standing on the podium watching the Irish flag flying as he and his teammates were presented their European medals, a large travelling contingent of his family watching on in Dublin. Believing he had not shown his true capabilities on an individual level that day, he was already making plans for 2022 on the journey north later that evening.
“You can be disappointed but I knew I had to get up the next day and run, use it as my motivation to come back stronger, to show people that I am not just a one season wonder”.
European record breaker
A blistering start to 2022 was the product of that motivation as Griggs opened his indoor season with a new Irish 3000m junior record of 7:57.38 in Abbotstown. Incredibly, just four days later he was back for more, this time breaking the indoor 1500m record in 3:43.71.
While all the early season indicators were promising, even Griggs himself was stunned when he smashed the European U20 mile record in March, running 3:56.40, pushing 1500m Olympic semi-finalist Andrew Coscoran all the way to the line in the National Indoor Arena.
“The plan was try and stick with him as long as I could, and fair play, the strength he showed from 800m out to completely take out that entire race. Afterwards, I was absolutely buzzing, it was the best race I’ve ever ran, everything just went perfectly. I remember in the cool down I was just in disbelief”.
Rolling into the outdoor season and Griggs has showed no signs of slowing the trajectory of his progression as he approaches his major target for the year, the World U20 Championships in Cali, Columbia. The Mid-Ulster man will head to the championships off the back of a 3:58.51 in the Morton Mile at the beginning of July. In Cork three days later, a 7:53.40 for 3000m was enough to break Darragh McElhinney’s Irish National U20 record while in his final outing before heading to Cali, Griggs collected the Irish National U23 3000m crown in Tullamore with a dominant display in the closing stages. Without question, more medals are to the forefront of his mind as he makes the trip to South America.
“When I’m standing in the kitchen putting my shoes on before a long run, I’m thinking you’re going to win a world championship medal in August, I’m always picturing that medal in my mind on those hard days.”
A true lover of the sport, Griggs has credited his coaching switch to Mark Kirk last year as something which has further fed his love of running. While speaking highly of his time training under Barrie Holmes at Mid Ulster A.C, Nick believes the move has been hugely positive for his development. His current training partner and friend Callum Morgan will also be joining him on the line of the men’s 3000m in Cali.
“I’ve got loads of guys my own age and older than me, it’s like a family almost, like you’re doing your training but also doing what you love and having a bit of craic with your mates at the same time”.
Only the beginning
Spearheading a generation of up-and-coming young talent in Ireland, Griggs says the fast times and achievements of other Irish athletes is something that certainly causes a rising tide in overall performance. Regardless of what unfolds in Columbia in the coming days, there is no doubt that we have only seen the opening chapters of the Nick Griggs story, with many more yet to be written.
“I want to be known as a great and as an Olympian”