Track and field often heralds the individual superstar who sets records every time they enter the athletics facility. We do that – it is exciting news to cover and share. But our sport is more than just those superstars. There is a team aspect to our sport that goes beyond teaming up with three others for a relay. Unfortunately, this is often dropped out of focus once the conference meets are done in early May every year, as it is the superfast or superstrong who advance to further competitions.
A team is made up of many athletes of various talents and interests. All of these athletes are expected to contribute when it is their turn. And they do, whether it be as the sole representative out in the throwing fields or multi-event series, or the non-anchor leg of a relay team. They rise up and help out the team as called. They may not always get the accolades they deserve while in college, but these athletes are typically the ones who come back to the sport and find a new way to serve within it.
Gaby Grebski is such an athlete.
Gabriela “Gaby” Grebski (Y’ 93) competed for the Bulldogs as a mid-distance runner who happened to do cross country in the fall months. She was strongest as an 800m runner, where her personal highlight was winning the 800m in the Harvard-Yale/Oxford-Cambridge dual in 1991 in 2:15.7 (Harvard-Yale won, 117.5 to 79.5). Although she struggled with injuries during her college career, she was a key member for both the 4×400 and 4×800 relay teams, and a top-5 scorer on the cross country team. The inset image above shows Gaby competing her relay leg in the 1992 Yale Invitational.
Nowadays, Gaby has found success both in and around the sport. As a Masters athlete, she was one of the top 800m runners in the world for her age group in 2008. This past April at the Penn Relays, Gaby anchored the Athena Track Club 40-to-49 4×400 relay team to a new American club record, 4:10.06. When she is not running, Gaby is the head coach of a high school girls cross country/track team in Washington, D.C., and participates in Girls Gotta Run: a young women empowerment non-profit that supports young East African runners to break out of the local cycles of poverty.
HepsTrack managed to catch up with Gaby and ask her a few questions about her busy life and how she has found her callings back into track and field.
Tell us a little about the Athena Track Club.
I began coaching girls track and cross-country when I got a job working at a private school in my early 30s. I had kept running a little after college but very sporadically and never really trained for anything in particular aside from jumping into a local Turkey Trot or 5K. I took a break after college. Struggling with a lot of injuries, I felt burned out and needed to take a break from the constant training (both physically and mentally). Once I started coaching, I began to run on a daily basis with the girls and found I was starting to enjoy it again. I jumped into random all-comer track meets where I was introduced to women who were members of the Athena Track Club. As soon as I turned 40, I joined the team and have found it to be an incredible group of inspiring women who have continued running and competing (at both the national and international level) into their 40s and 50s for the pure joy of it. A fair number of us live in the greater DC area but we also have members of the team living in other parts of the country. Although many of us train on our own (I still train with the girls I coach), I have found the team to be very supportive and collaborative. We compete against each other at events like Nationals but, my favorite events are when we get to run together on relays at events like the Millrose Games and Penn Relays.
You’ve achieved world rankings in both the 400m and 800m in the last 10 years. Do you have a favorite event?
Although I run the 400 more often, I think I’m more of an 800m runner (which was my better event both in high school and college).
What are some of your favorite moments competing as a “Masters Athlete”?
It was a thrill to be able to walk back onto the track at Penn Relays and compete as an athlete again after almost 20 years. Winning the Masters 4×400 in 2012 and then again in 2013 where we set an American Club record (4:10.06) was also very fun. I’d have to say that the highlight of my running career was getting to run in the Masters Exhibition 400m event at the Olympic Trials.
How did it feel to run at the 2012 Olympic Trials?
Running on the track in Eugene where so many famous runners have run was a surreal experience. The history there is unbelievable. I felt very lucky and fortunate to be a part of such a competitive field of Masters women. They accepted the top 8 times into the race and seven of us were all within one second of each other. Had I run 0.30 seconds slower, I would not have qualified. I did not race as well as I had to qualify which was disappointing but, I had suffered some injuries leading up to the race including a pulled hamstring which kept me off the track and in the pool for 5 weeks that spring. So, I was counting my blessings to be standing on the starting line at all. The experience of just being there and competing in front of those crowds was a thrill to say the least. Plus, one of my fellow Athena team members also ran and places 2nd which was exciting!
Are you still coaching cross-country and track?
I do still coach (I just finished my 10th year) and it has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my adult life. To see girls who may have never viewed themselves as athletes start gaining confidence as they see the fruits of their hard work pay off with each new PR is just as exciting for me, I think, as it is for them. I have seen running teach these girls bigger life lessons such as the importance of commitment, dedication, sacrifice and team work. I’ve watched girls become more competitive, run times they never thought possible and become true leaders. And, getting to coach some extremely talented kids who make it all the way to Nationals is just pure fun… the icing on the cake.
How did you get involved with Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF)?
A colleague at my school told me about the organization. I was immediately interested as it paired two passions of mine… running and the empowerment of women, especially women with no voice. I have seen what running can do for girls in America who have every opportunity they could want. It has been heartwarming to see girls with far less be able to use running as a tool of not only change but survival.
You got a chance to travel to Ethiopia as a part of GGRF. How can you compare the similarities and differences between the USA and Ethiopian running cultures for women?
I have been fortunate to travel to Ethiopia in the summers of 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2010, I was able to travel with one of my former runners who was running in college at the time, and it made that trip even more meaningful for me. It is interesting to see how similar the girls can be. In both countries, I see the girls as often more shy, tentative, and humble than their male counterparts. Both groups of girls have good work ethics but the girls in Ethiopia are not running as a means to get in shape, gain some glory, or get recruited to a good college. In Ethiopia, being successful at running can often mean not being married off or forced into child rearing at too early an age. It often allows the girls to continue with their education and, if successful, can be a means of income for their families. Most aspire to be the next Meseret Defar or Tirunesh Dibaba. I don’t see that kind of aspirations with most of the girls I have worked with in the U.S. Some have gone on to college but most are doing it for fun and for the team aspect. The motivations of both groups certainly come from very different places. But, I do see running building the self-esteem and confidence of both groups of girls – that advantageous outcome is undeniable.
What can American women runners learn from their Ethiopian counterparts?
American girls can learn the incredible sense of dedication and sacrifice the Ethiopian girls put into their running and training. There is no question about taking a day off or slacking off in practice. They give 100% every day. They never complain about a workout. To the contrary, they strive to work as hard as possible and don’t look for any shortcuts or easy ways out. They understand that only through hard work will they achieve the success they need and want. Aside from running, these girls are taking care of siblings and family members, doing homework, working the fields or helping out with the local family business. And, with all they have to do, the thought of skipping practice never crosses their mind.
How can one support GGRF?
GGRF tries to focus on the education of these female athletes through sponsorships and scholarships and paying for coaching, food and equipment. For more information, you can go to www.girlsgottarun.org.
Editor’s update: Runner’s World has recently featured Gaby with GGRF and Oiselle in this June 2013 article. Fellow Yale alumni Sarah and Bob Lasko (both 1991) and Kate Grace (2011) are involved in this fundraising effort through Oiselle.
Do you have any advice on how current student-athletes could possibly be able to stay involved with cross country or track and field once they are done with their collegiate career? You seem to be involved in three different possibilities – Masters/club competitions, youth coaching, and non-profit community service.
There are lots of teams to join post-collegiately. The DC area has several and many are connected to local running stores in the area. I have the unique opportunity to coach at the high school level by working in a school but schools are often looking for assistant coaches for all kinds of events. Girls On The Run (different from Girls Gotta Run) is also a growing organization trying to get girls interested in or find a love of running at a younger age combined with a curriculum that aims to build self-esteem. They have chapters all over the country. Girls Gotta Run (in Ethiopia) is different from Girls On The Run (here in the U.S.) and the two are often confused. Both work to empower girls/women but Girls Gotta Run was motivated by the plight of girls in Ethiopia and hopes to expand to girls and women in other developing countries. Girls On The Run is also another great organization and, when I have time, would love to get involved with them too. They have actually partnered with Girls Gotta Run to help collect running clothes to bring to Ethiopia which is very cool – it’s always good to help girls here in America understand or put into perspective how much they have and make them aware of what’s going on for girls in other countries!
Editor’s note: A Girls On The Run chapter is active in Hanover, NH as Dartmouth distance runners Kelly Wood, Jill Corcoran, and Abbey D’Agostino volunteered at a local middle school this past spring through this program.