Nick Griggs: Tyrone athletics talent says late brother will be 'with me' as he chases more European glory

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
'Every time I step on the track, he's with me' - Griggs inspired by memory of late brother
European Cross Country Championships
Venue: Abbotstown, Fingal-Dublin Date: Sunday, 12 December
Coverage: Watch live coverage on BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button, BBC Sport website and app from 10:00 GMT.

"Every time I step out on the track for a race, he's there with me."

Nick Griggs sensed his late brother Josh's presence back in July when he was a shock winner of the European Under-20 3,000m title at the age of 16 on a day of remarkable success for Irish athletics in Tallinn.

And Nick will feel it again this Sunday in Dublin when he aims to win two more medals while wearing the Ireland vest at the European Cross Country Championships.

"They were the most amazing brothers. They did everything together," says Nick's mother Royanne of her two beloved sons.

Quite how Nick regathered himself to win in Estonia only six weeks after his 19-year-old brother's tragic death while working at a summer job is something that this most mature of 16-year-olds occasionally even asks himself.

But those thoughts are fleeting.

"Everyone says 'I don't know how you get up in the morning or how you did that so soon after?' but there's nothing else you can do," says Nick, who hails from the Tyrone village of Newmills which is between Dungannon and Coalisland.

'He was my hero'

"You can't just sit in your bed and mourn about it. You can mourn in your own time.

"I had to keep running. It gave me a focus where I could go on a run and just clear my head and focusing on those Europeans especially was really useful because it was six weeks away.

"I had already got the qualifying standard. I had to keep training and ploughing on and if I could do anything in those Europeans it was going to be massive for me and for Josh as well. I could dedicate that to him."

And dedicate it he did as he pointed to the sky both before and after a 3,000m final where he blew the field away to claim a dominant victory in a championships which had merely been earmarked as a learning experience for the Tyrone youngster as he raced older opponents.

"Some people are siblings by blood but we were siblings who were really, really close," says the Cookstown High School student of his relationship with Josh.

"Since he was my only brother, he was my hero. All I wanted to do was look up to him and follow in his footsteps. Do whatever he did so that was hard losing him but he's always with me in my heart."

Nick's parents Royanne and Andy encouraged both their sons to play gaelic football even though the family are not from a Catholic background
Nick with parents Royanne and Andy and Josh's girlfriend Dominika at Brackaville GAA club last weekend when the Josh Griggs Memorial Cup was presented for the first time

'Communities mixing is what Josh wanted'

Even though the Griggs family are not from a Catholic background, both Royanne and her English-born husband Andy's cross-community mentality meant they encouraged both their sons to play gaelic football for the nearby Brackaville club.

Indeed Nick says being part of the same Brackaville Under-14 team as Josh that won county league and championship titles in 2016 is one of his most precious memories.

"Celebrating that with him is something I will never forget."

Josh's funeral service took place at the Brackaville club and the love that the Owen Roes faithful have for the Griggs family was evident in social media footage posted of the club members watching and celebrating Nick's unexpected triumph in Estonia.

Last Friday evening, the club inaugurated the Josh Griggs Memorial Trophy which henceforth will be presented to Brackaville's Under-15 player of the year. Josh's typical selflessness had led to him coaching the Under-15 team even though he was making waves himself as a player having trained with the Tyrone GAA Academy and despite his university commitments at Jordanstown.

"The whole club is just a huge community even though we're not from that background," adds Nick.

"It's good that it's showing breakthroughs in this country from the past that would never have happened. Communities mixing is really good and that's what Joshua wanted. They have been unbelievable the whole time."

'I started training properly during lockdown'

Inevitably, Josh played a major role in getting Nick involved in athletics although the sight of Usain Bolt's triumphs at London 2012 had already planted the seed in the then seven-year-old's mind.

"Josh used to do the cross country even though he was more of a sprinter, he just did it all. So when I went to Cookstown High School a few years after him, he just encouraged me to go all to events 'so we can do it together. That's how it started really.

"I started to train with [the] Mid-Ulster [club] when I was in third year at school.

"Once lockdown hit, I started training properly and then I realised I was going to have to give up gaelic if I was going to focus properly on running because you don't have the time and you could get injured. I decided on that about a year ago."

With Nick having stepped up his training programme under his then Mid-Ulster coach Barrie Holmes, he immediately achieved a European Under-20 Championship standard at the start of the 2021 season in May and while as a Northern Ireland athlete, the option of representing Great Britain was there, his mind was "already set on Ireland".

"I had put on the Irish vest and while it was just a schools international event in my third year which didn't mean I had to declare at that stage, but at 14, I had never felt pride like it in my life and I said to myself, 'this is what I want to do'."

A nervy wait for his Irish passport ensued before it eventually arrived just three days before his departure to the Baltic.

Nick Griggs, Cian McPhillips and Rhasidat Adeleke won gold for Ireland on a memorable July Sunday in Tallinn
Nick joined Cian McPhillips and Rhasidat Adeleke in winning gold medals for Ireland at the European Under-20 Championships in Tallinn in July

Aiming to follow in Ingebrigtsen's footsteps

Nick says the "welcome" from his team-mates and the management showed he had made the right decision even before he won gold in Tallinn, which meant a fourth title for the Irish amid Rhasidat Adeleke's sprint double and Cian McPhillips' 1500m triumph.

"I didn't know what to expect but everyone was so open and so welcoming. There was a real buzz about it. We won four gold medals in Estonia and I think came third in the overall leaderboard."

As for this weekend, Nick will be competing in an under-20 race won at the last four championships by a certain Jakob Ingebrigtsen, now the dominant middle distance runner in the world after winning the Olympic 1500m title in Tokyo.

While Mark Kirk, now guiding the 16-year-old after Barrie Holmes recommended that he needed more specialist coaching following his Estonia triumph, cautions that there "four or five really good athletes in the field", Nick insists that he will be targeting victory as always.

"Hopefully I can go out and win and follow in the footsteps of someone like Jakob, someone who is heralded in the distance running community as one of the greatest runners of all time," adds Nick, who will turn 17 on 18 December.

"It's going to be very tough but there's no point in going out and running if you don't believe you can win.

"The aim is always to win even if that's ambitious and if you fall short, you just have to pick yourself up and go again and keep training hard and then come back the next time and hopefully win.

"Ireland have a very good team as well. We should have maybe a strong chance at a team medal

"If we all fire and all do well, there's a strong chance that everyone in Ireland - not just the under-20 team but the likes of Hiko [Tonosa], Darragh McElhinney and Sarah Healy and all - should do really well. It's very exciting."

And all the while, Nick will feel Josh's presence with him.

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