Hurling insult at injury: the fall and rise of Stephen Gardner

Hurling insult at injury: the fall and rise of Stephen Gardner

By Scott Mills

As the curtains closed on the 2018 European Championships in Berlin, they also closed on Belgrave’s Southern Athletics League campaign in Dartford.

Some could even have been forgiven for mistaking the blue track for the Olympiastadion as Andrew Pozzi’s stunt double, Steve Gardner, charged around in the men’s 1500m to produce the last of a very long list of track PBs.

Steve and Battersea Project teammate Arne Dumez logged a few key sessions together this summer (beautifully captured by Andy Fyfe)

Since the start of 2018, Steve has recorded PB’s in the 1500 all the way up to the 10km. When he wasn’t admiring felines on the internet, it is probably safe to assume he was dropping yet another PB somewhere.

“Every track race I ran this summer was a new PB, and I probably won’t ever have another summer like it,” reflects Steve.

“For now I’d just like to bask in the smug satisfaction [and Strava kudos] of it all. Of course, I’d like to thank my coaches, surgeons, physios and my Battersea Project training partners for giving me such a rare treat.”

These pins might as well have been needles. Yeesh!

However, like his beloved Newcastle United, things haven’t always been plain sailing for former Turnham Trotters Football Club frontman. Following a delightful track debut in Bromley where he clocked a 17:01 in the 5,000m at the Southern Athletics League, Steve had to sit out most of the 2017 season with injury. A consistently recurring ITB syndrome made cycling, walking and even sitting painful. However, even when things looked particularly bleak, Steve refused to let the injury defeat him.

“I had it treated with physio and cortisone jabs (three times) but the relief only ever lasted for a week or so,” he reminisces.

“It was starting to look like I might have to abandon all hope of becoming an elite athlete. Eventually a great surgeon [Kash Akhtar] worked out that it was probably being caused by the pin from an old cruciate ligament reconstruction rubbing against my IT band. So in October 2017 I had surgery to remove the pins, sew a window into the IT band and tidy up some meniscus damage and the general mess that my knee had become.”

Thankfully, the procedure went well and after completing a lot of what the Will Young fan described as ‘very dull’ strength work, he was back by late December thanks to a running programme given to him by physio Scott Newton.

During his recovery phase, Steve made sure he could come back even stronger by shifting his focus to getting his nutrition right, working hard in the gym and doing a lot of training on his bike.

“Mentally, I treated the return to proper running like I was preparing for the biggest race of the season. Having worked so diligently at improving other areas to help my running, I felt like I had an edge over runners who would be knackered from the cross-country season,” Steve explained.

“My first session back with Belgrave was in late February and my fitness returned far quicker than I had hoped. Partly because I was in good aerobic shape from lots of bike work and to have my competitive return at the National Road Relays in April was immensely satisfying to finish uninjured and to contribute to the team.”

Although polishing off a second album of Garageband was one of Steve’s sweetest moments of 2018, the arduous journey back from injury added an addictive aftertaste to his recent success. The most notable moment of which, he explains, took place on a particularly warm summer’s evening at Hercules Wimbledon’s 5,000m Festival in Wimbledon Park.

After so many attempts at breaking the 16 minute mark, Steve finally shattered the barrier he had so long thought untouchable.

“It had been a near-mythical dreamland for so long. Obviously by the next morning, the sub-16 felt like the most straightforward thing in the world and I had immediately recalibrated my understanding of “good runner” to mean “sub-15”, Steve gleefully quips.

“What made it even sweeter was having my pals there cheering me on and the fact that a few months ago it seemed like such an improbable goal, so for it all to come together was brilliant.”

Steve now turns his attention to the road and cross-country season which kicks off at the Surrey road relays on September 15th. Having missed most of last winter’s base training, Steve has already marked keeping injury-free as one of his main priorities.

Cross-training does work, kids. Stick with it.

“My first goal is to not get injured. Then I would like to put in some big XC performances and hopefully, give the Kingston Half a really good go. If I were to look past that to the future, my main goals are to run a sub-15 5,000m, to complete the marathon majors and win a national title with Belgrave.”

From his first session in Battersea with Charlie’s group Steve struck us a hugely promising prospect, so his phoenix-like return to form comes with a cheer of relief. His meteoric progress is sure to inspire and motivate his teammates and – who knows- maybe be the first signs of a historic few years for the club.