Interview: Dai Greene – “Athletics saved me”

The British hurdler on battling epilepsy to win gold

Dai Greene, the reigning European and Commonwealth 400m hurdles champion, will put on his spikes for the London Grand Prix on Saturday knowing that his athletics training has not only turned him into one of the new stars of British athletics, but also changed his life.

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“I suppose you could say that athletics has saved me,” says the 25-year-old in his soft, south Wales accent. “I hope that doesn’t sound too dramatic, but it’s true; the training I’ve done and the way I live for athletics has turned my life around.”

Greene, who hopes to beat the long-standing British record at Crystal Palace this weekend, has had epilepsy since he was 17, when he discovered that even something as simple as a late night, too much alcohol or missing a meal could trigger a horrific seizure in which he’d lose consciousness and fall to the floor in convulsions. “It was terrifying for people around me, especially for my mum and dad,” he recalls. “I’d wake up and not know what had happened. Seizures are very dangerous. They can kill.”

He was taken to see a specialist who prescribed a drug called sodium valproate. “It’s a common drug for epilepsy and works well for a lot of people, but I was finding it difficult to train once I’d started taking it because it made me feel drowsy.” So, in 2007, he decided to go back to the specialist and ask whether he could come off them.

“My mum and dad were very worried, and wanted me to keep taking the drug, but I’d come to realise that I wasn’t going to make it to the top of athletics while I was on it. I explained to my consultant that I wouldn’t be drinking, I’d be physically fit and wouldn’t be having late nights. The consultant said that with that sort of lifestyle I could come off it. She actually said that she wished more people would change their lifestyles instead of taking drugs.”

Greene hasn’t had a seizure since – thanks, he believes, to his athletics career. Now his devotion to training, coupled with a natural sporting talent (he was once on the books of Swansea Football Club) has turned him into one of the brightest emerging stars of British athletics – who will captain the British team at the world championships in Korea later this month.

The engaging Llanelli-born athlete had his breakthrough last year when he won gold at the European championships in Barcelona, then three months later another gold in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, as well as breaking the elusive 48-second barrier.

He is now the second-fastest British man over the 400m hurdles, behind record holder Kriss Akabusi, who ran 47.82 in August 1992, and that’s the record Greene is aiming for this weekend. Greene’s personal best is 47.88.

“I met Kriss at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards and I told him I’d beat the record soon. He laughed and said I probably would. My priority is to win medals, but I want to break records, too, and to do that in front of a home crowd would be great. You get such a brilliant reaction when you break records at home events… who wouldn’t want that?”

If he does take the record at Crystal Palace, then performs well at the world championships, there’s no question he will be one of Britain’s brightest hopes for gold at London 2012. “I’m so lucky that the Olympics has come to this country in my lifetime, and so lucky to be coming to my peak at exactly the right moment,” he says.

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Lucky indeed, but luck does seem to fall at the feet of those who work hardest, and few have worked harder, nor deserve success more than Dai Greene.