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A Race to Faith

Olympic runner renews commitments to God and family

By Brian Caulfield

From the time he was a teenager, John Gregorek trained hard to reach his running goals, excelling so much that he made two U.S. Olympic track teams. But it wasn’t until he retired from the sport that he began to direct his competitive spirit to new goals, focusing on his Catholic faith and family life.

The exercise has involved some frustration, he admitted. “In track, you have a definite distance to run and you set goals that you can measure by time,” Gregorek explained. “With your faith life, the goal is heaven, so you won’t really know you’ve made it until the very end. Being a goal-oriented person, this can be a little frustrating. You realize it takes perseverance, it’s a constant journey, and the funny part is that the road gets narrower and narrower as you go along.”

An All-American at Georgetown, John Gregorek is shown after winning a cross-country race.

Now 51, Gregorek has been married for 28 years to his college sweetheart, Christine (Mullen), who was a running star in her own right at Georgetown University. They live in Christine’s hometown of Seekonk, Mass., and have three children: Rachel, 23; John, 18, and Patrick, 13. As you would expect, all three are runners, with John excelling competitively, clocking an outstanding 4:15 mile in high school and competing now for Columbia University in New York City.

After hanging up his track spikes in 1996, Gregorek coached distance runners for more than 10 years at Brown University, and now works in promotions for an athletic shoe company. His wife also coached women’s track at Brown and now is a director of religious education (DRE) at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Seekonk. The two also teach marriage preparation classes for the parish and speak to youth groups.

Gregorek and his wife, Christine, stand proudly with their son, who is now a runner at Columbia University.

Gregorek grew up on New York’s Long Island, attended St. Anthony’s High School, where he became a national track star with the year’s fastest mile time, and earned a scholarship to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. He made his first Olympic team in the steeplechase in 1980 as a sophomore, but politics was against him. That was the year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the United States boycotted the Olympics in Moscow. In 1984 Gregorek qualified for the Olympic steeplechase team again and made it to the semifinals in the Los Angeles Games, which the Soviets boycotted. Although he never won an Olympic medal, he considers his running career a success. He ran a 3:51.34 mile, 8:18.45 in the steeplechase and 13:17.44 in the 5,000 meters – all ranking among the best in the world at the time. Almost as an afterthought, he trained for the marathon and ran 2 hours and 16 minutes.

He was raised in a good Catholic family and always attended Mass throughout the years, he said, but his personal commitment to the faith became much deeper in the past 12 years. He credits a prior pastor and the witness of Franciscan Friars of the Strict Observance for opening up a new page in his life.

One of the Franciscans mentioned that he was glad that he was better spiritual shape than he was in physical shape. “It made me think,” Gregorek recalled. “I had never thought that you could develop your spiritual life, that you could get in better spiritual shape. I always thought that people who seemed really close to God and holy were just born that way or got hit by God’s lightning. But when I realized that this was something you could train for, that you had to work at it, I really could relate to that as an athlete. Suddenly my competitive spirit came out and I thought in terms of training for the spiritual life.”

He also began learning more about the importance of being a good husband and father. “I think some fathers don’t quite know what their role is and they settle on just becoming a paycheck for the family,” he said. “But we fathers all have to realize just how vital we are to the family. How you should be involved with your wife and the lives of your children. That realization came to me in a big way at that time, when I was developing my spiritual life. We fathers need to know that God wants to use us for his own purposes as men, as husbands and as fathers.”

Prayer is key, he stressed, both private prayer and with the family. Sunday Mass and weekday Mass is also a part of his routine, as well as praying before the Blessed Sacrament one hour a week in the parish’s perpetual adoration chapel.

“It all comes together if you let God lead you,” Gregorek said. “You see that he has laid this path at your feet, and it’s all good.”

Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good.

Homepage photo: John Gregorek trails Henry Marsh in 1984 Olympic Trials steeplechase final in Los Angeles. Credit: AP Photo/Doug Pizac.