David Gillick rings in the New Year with renewed optimism

‘I found it hard to deal with just being an athlete. I also had my grant cut from €40,000, to zero’

David Gillick: will be at the Twisted Pepper this Tuesday discussing his career’s ups and downs.

David Gillick: will be at the Twisted Pepper this Tuesday discussing his career’s ups and downs.


For as long as he can remember, David Gillick rang in the New Year with some boldly ambitious statement of intent. Bring on the low 44’s, baby! Watch me tear up that indoor track again! Look out, you sorry doubters, London’s calling!

Last Tuesday night, Gillick rang in the New Year with a quiet proposal to his long-time girlfriend, Charlotte Wickham. Will you marry me? She said yes. For as long as he can remember, Gillick never felt more content, more in control of his own destiny.

That this happened in the same year he’d turned 30 could be deemed a natural shift in simple life priorities, and in certain ways it was: it was also a very conscious shift away from the athlete who had spent much of his recent life torn between constantly fluctuating extremes of euphoria and despair, struggling to find a balance between the two.

Because if 2013 had been another utterly frustrating year on the track, it was no worse than 2012, when Gillick found himself bottled up by so much of that frustration that he wondered if there would ever be a way out. The 2011 track season had brought no joy either, and eventually, something had to give, or rather go. Now more than ever, Gillick felt cripplingly separated from the athlete who ran 44.77 seconds for the 400 metres in the summer of the 2009, arguably one of the best Irish records on the track, and before that had built a steely competitive reputation on the back of his successive European Indoor titles in 2005 and 2007.

‘Lost the enjoyment’
“I suppose that was partly it, about beginning the New Year with at least one new decision, getting some new plan in order, just getting on with things,” Gillick told me yesterday. “Because I’d been injured for 18 months, almost two years, and that was very frustrating. And I have been unhappy, lost the enjoyment of what I’ve been doing.

“I still hope to get that back, and enjoy the sport like I once did. But I do have days when I think I’m on the other side of it, and then boom, it slaps you on the face again, like a wet fish. I’m just trying to stay on the positive side, by talking about it to as many people as I can.”

Indeed these are some of the thoughts Gillick will bring to a round table talk, “Over The Bar”, in Dublin next Tuesday, as part of First Fortnight, the organisation aimed at challenging mental health prejudice through the creative arts.

Gillick will be joined at the Twisted Pepper on Dublin’s Middle Abbey Street by Richard Sadlier, his former school-mate at St Benildus in Ballinteer, who has already spoken openly about the challenges he faced when his international soccer career was cut short by injury, with some equally important input from Liam Moggan, of Coaching Ireland, a man particularly sensitive to the demands of elite participation across all sports.

Complex and layered
Gillick is cautious about using the word “depression”, aware of how complex and layered that word often is. He is equally aware that when he moved to the US in 2010, training in Clermont, Florida, alongside the likes of Tyson Gay, his eventual breakdown with injury took him to a dark place that no athlete should unnecessarily find themselves.

“I’ve never gone into too much detail of how I really felt over there, or what I was fighting with. But it took me a long time to admit to myself that I needed a bit of help, and that’s the key lesson here. I also think it is a lot more open now. In the last year we have seen a lot more big sportsmen, in the GAA especially, come out and address this issue, and that can only be a good thing. It does take a while to accept it, though.”

Gillick takes refuge from the fact more elite athletes are pointing to the cracks in their armour, either before or after their career is done: “And I know as well that as a male athlete, there was this sort of macho expectation, to just get on with it.

‘My grant cut’
“I found it hard to deal with just being an athlete. I also had my grant cut from €40,000, to zero. If that happened in any other walk of life you can imagine how that individual would react. When it happens in sport you’re expected to just accept, and walk away. But it does have an effect on your mental attitude, too, especially in coping with where to go next.

“The other thing I would be more conscious about now is providing some aftercare for athletes, after they retire, or get injured. What I see now, the way most elite athletes lead their lives, there is a lot of pressure and stress, and especially in individual sports. And I don’t think we really realise this until something starts to fall apart, like getting injured.”

Another part of Gillick’s New Year message is that salvation can sometimes be just around the corner, as he discovered himself this summer when an email from the producers at RTÉ’s Celebrity MasterChef arrived on the same day he’d pulled the plug on his summer track season due to an Achilles tendon injury: Gillick went on to win the show, but for once it really was all about the taking part.

‘Told to cook’
“Just walking into the kitchen, being told to cook something, doing it well, and then getting a pat on the back, meant so much, because I hadn’t got that in a long while. And that’s exactly what I said after the show, that they’d no idea how good it had been for me. The other thing about elite sport is this idea of having no regrets. Well I have loads of regrets.

“And I think athletes have to be honest about that. I know I did try my best, gave it 100 per cent, but you can’t always beat yourself up about it either, if things don’t work out the way you hoped.”

“Over The Bar” takes place at the Twisted Pepper in Dublin next Tuesday, beginning at 8pm. For booking see www.firstfortnight.ie

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