A Family's Passion, A Son's Success

WARWICK, Rhode Island _ John Gregorek was nervous.

The two-time Olympian and one of the fastest milers in U.S. history, stared at the starting line for the Boys Championship Race at the Ocean State Cross Country Invitational meet at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick.

A gentle breeze blew from nearby Narragansett Bay across the open field as the runners leaned forward and waited for the race official to fire the starting gun.

For Gregorek, this was more nerve-wracking than the Olympics, or any other international competition that he once dominated. He was there to watch his son, Johnny Gregorek, of Seekonk High School in Massachusetts, who has emerged as one of the top distance runners in New England.

``Your own child running is out-of-control,'' said Gregorek as the runners bolted from the starting line and passed by. ``It's the worst.''

The younger Gregorek (Photo by Mary Murphy) was a short distance off the lead pack shortly before the one-mile mark, but he looked comfortable in his powder blue Seekonk High singlet and navy shorts. By the time the runners returned on the sandy path about nine minutes later, Gregorek had inched closer to the leaders.

And, that's where he would remain. Chris Bendtsen, of Wolcott High School in Connecticut, was the winner in 15:34, while Pat Schellberg, of the Delbarton School, in New Jersey, was second, in 15:37. Gregorek finished a strong third with a time of 15:53.

Last year, he ran this same course in 16:13.95 and won his Varsity race.

Overall, Gregorek was satisfied with his performance, a PR on a five-kilometer cross country course, but a cold had set him back the past few days. He felt as though he should have won the race.

``Got to keep looking forward,'' he said as he shook hands and mingled with his competitors.

His father and mother, Christine, a national caliber 800 and 1500 runner at Georgetown, met Johnny at the finish line. They hugged and kissed him.

``You must have been under 16,'' minutes, said Chris Gregorek.

``Congratulations, pal,'' John Gregorek said. ``You looked good. Nice job. Nice run.''

Among those watching was Dan Ireland, the men's cross country coach at Yale University . He would love to have Johnny, who is #1 in his class academically, make the short trek down Interstate 95 to New Haven.

``He has exactly what we are looking for,'' Ireland said. ``Good times and high academics. He's a great kid.''

Every kid who runs a cross country race or track meet feels pressure. They place pressure on themselves to improve their time, they feel pressure from their coaches and they feel pressure from their families.

No one is under more pressure than Johnny Gregorek (Photo by Mary Murphy). The teenager might be the best known runner in the Northeast. Everywhere he goes, race officials, coaches, reporters and other runners all know his famous father. Father and son bear a striking resemblance: long and lean with dark hair. Check out an old photograph of the senior Gregorek running for St. Anthony's High School in Smithtown, Long Island and you can see the son.

If he runs well, critics say he should post great times because his parents were great runners. If he has an off day, those same critics scratch their head and wonder why he's not running faster.

Nobody was better than John Gregorek as a high school runner in the 70s. He ran a 4:05.4 mile in the Golden West Invite and he still holds the New York state record for two miles _8:50.7.

After high school, he ran at Georgetown University, where he met his wife, Chris, a native of Seekonk. Gregorek represented the US in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics in the 3000 meter steeplechase and he recorded a 3:51.3 mile in Oslo, Norway, at the time the fastest time ever run by an American.

His personal best in 5000 meters is an eye-popping 13:17.44.

Chris Gregorek was no slouch either. She posted times of 2:02 in the 800 and 4:17 in the 1500. She also competed in the 1984 Olympic Trials. Two of her brothers, Michael and David, ran for Boston College and the University of Massachusetts.

The Gregoreks settled in Seekonk and became fixtures on the local running scene that was crowded with many great runners, many of them Providence College graduates, such as Mark Carroll, John Treacy, Andy Ronan, Amy Rudolph and Kim Smith.

For many years, John Gregorek was the men's distance and cross country coach at Brown University in Providence. Today, he's a team sales coordinator for Asics, the running shoe and apparel company.
The Gregoreks have three children, Rachel, a senior at Providence College, Johnny, and Patrick, a middle school student in Seekonk.

The Gregoreks are an easy-going family and they never pushed their children into running. Rachel ran at Seekonk High and briefly at Providence College. Johnny eased into running during his first two years of high school. There were flashes of his parents' talent, and he certainly had the right physique, but there was no pressure from home.

Where the Gregoreks hoping Johnny was the chosen one?

``Actually, not,'' said Chris Gregorek. ``Early on, we kind of discouraged him from running. We wanted him to choose another sport.''

Why not running? ``We know what goes into it,'' she said. ``How hard it is. The pain.''

But Johnny wanted to run and his parents (Photo by Mary Murphy) supported him. The running world started to take notice last fall, but his big breakthrough came in January at a big indoor regional meet at Brown University.

It was late afternoon when Gregorek lined up for the 3000 with an all-star cast that included the big guns from Westerly High School in Rhode Island. Toeing the starting line with him was Andrew Springer, the greatest runner in Rhode Island schoolboy history. He would post a 4:02.7 mile a few months later, the fastest time for an American high school runner last year.

Also on the starting line was Timmy O'Loughlin, who had lived in Springer's shadow, but had emerged as one of the top distance runners in the Northeast.

Springer won the race in 8:27.21, but Gregorek wasn't too far behind. He finished second in 8:46.61, about five seconds ahead of O'Loughlin, at 8:51.06. The three times were among the fastest in the country.

Gregorek had arrived. He had now become a national caliber runner.

His success continued through the winter and he had a strong outdoor season in track, although he had a disappointing performance the New England Outdoor Championships in Burlington, Vermont in June. He finished a disappointing 13th in the 1600 with a time of 4:22.48.

Gregorek worked hard over the summer averaging about 60 miles a week and he has his work cut out for him this fall. Many of the great runners from southeastern New England are gone: Springer is at Georgetown, O'Loughlin, at the University of Florida, and Mark Feigen, of East Greenwich, RI, is at Columbia University in New York. But many very good ones remain, locally, and across the region.

The remaining group has posted some impressive cross country times so far this season: Francis Hernandez, of Bishop Guertin, NH, 15:25; Jake Sienko, of Bishop Hendricken, RI, Aaron Watanabe, Hanover, NH, 15:42; John Raneri, of New Fairfield, CT, 15:43; Jeff Lacoste, Bishop Guertin, NH, 15:50. And Nick Ross, a senior from East Greenwich, RI, ran in the 2009 Millrose Games.

Gregorek has narrowed his college choices to Yale, Columbia, Virginia and the U.S. Naval Academy. For now, he wants to break 15:30 in a five-kilometer cross country race and, in November, compete in the Foot Locker Regionals at Sunken Meadow in Long Island.

If he's looking for some advice, he just has to ask his Dad. John Gregorek set a course record, in 1977, that still stands_ 15:32. I don't think he would mind if Johnny breaks his old mark. Hey, as long as it remains in the family.