Before setting foot on the campus of East Tennessee State University, track and field athlete Michelle Gregg already felt at home in Johnson City.
One of the newest inductees into the ETSU Athletics Hall of Fame, the Ireland native remembered the feeling of looking out the window of a plane at Johnson City below.
“Leaving Dublin and flying into Johnson City, I saw this sea of green forests and trees. How green it was, it just gave me this feeling of home,” she said. “Surrounded by the Irish community, the Irish history, it was just wonderful.
“I had never heard of Johnson City, Tennessee, before. To be welcomed there, it had a sense of home, a wonderful warmth from the people right off the bat.”
ETSU Hall of Fame coach Dave Walker recruited a legendary group of Irish runners in the 1970s nicknamed the “Irish Brigade.” They included such notables as Ray Flynn, Neal Cusack, Louis Kenny and Frank Greally. On the women’s side, Gregg added to the great tradition, a multi-time participant at the NCAA championships. She was an All-American in 1998 after a fifth-place run in the 800 meters at the NCAA indoor championships.
Gregg was part of ETSU’s only Southern Conference indoor championship team in 1995 and the Bucs’ SoCon outdoor championship team in 1996. She said Walker played a big role, always knowing just how high to set the bar for his athletes and building a true team, where even in individual events, they all felt they were in it together.
“He was tremendous, larger than life,” she said. “We were so in awe of him. The first years, he had more influence over the men’s team and Michelle Byrne was the women’s coach. She was a wonderful coach. As coaches changed, we were blessed to have Coach Walker my junior year for the cross country season.
“He just communicated so well, even though there were times he didn’t have to say much to have you understand what he expected from you.”
The 1995 Southern Conference outdoor freshman of the year, Gregg won both the 800- and 1,500-meter races that season. She set the 800-meter record of 2:05.18 in 1997 and was a part of five Southern Conference champion relay teams over her ETSU career.
Now living in Greenville, South Carolina, the Hall of Fame induction reminds her of great times in Johnson City.
“It evokes so many wonderful memories,” she said. “I was so humbled to hear the news. I came over to the states 25 years ago and it’s just amazing to come full circle.”