- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

He knelt at the starting line, his composed features showing no hint of emotion. One way or another, it would be over in less than 10 seconds — the most important time in Justin Gatlin’s long road to redemption.

Those seconds would determine whether one of the fastest men in Olympic history would have a chance to reclaim that title, or if he would wind up as just another aging athlete trying to recapture past glory.

As the gun sounded, Gatlin ran the best race of his life. He finished in 9.80 seconds to win gold at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and cement his return as one of the best American sprinters.

“I wasn’t too hyped, wasn’t too calm,” Gatlin, 30, said immediately after the race. “It felt just right. I went out there and gave it my all, and I have a lot more left in the tank.”

Gatlin’s road to redemption has been filled with roadblocks, including a drug suspension, a significant weight gain and a period of depression during four soul-searching years away from the sport he loved.

Gatlin began as a hurdler before his coaches at the University of Tennessee convinced him that he had the speed to become a world-class sprinter. Gatlin made the change.

After winning six NCAA titles, he left Tennessee to turn pro.

A member of the 2004 Olympic team, Gatlin won gold at the Summer Games in Athens. He defeated his teammate and defending Olympic champion Maurice Greene, who took the bronze. Gatlin also won a bronze in the 200 meters and picked up a silver as a member of the 4x100 meter relay team.

Career in decline

Gatlin also won gold at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki, but in 2006, his career came to an abrupt halt.

Gatlin tested positive for a substance described by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as a testosterone precursor.

Gatlin protested the results and claimed his innocence, but it was a fight he seemed to know he would not win.

Gatlin ultimately reached an agreement with USADA and accepted an eight-year ban, as opposed to the lifetime ban USADA had planned to levy. In August 2007, the suspension was reduced to four years.

In the meantime, Gatlin was lost.

“I got to the point where I said, ‘I don’t care anymore,’” Gatlin recalled. “I was depressed about life. I felt like I wasn’t worth much.”

Ironically, it was Dennis Mitchell, another world-class sprinter and now one of Gatlin’s coaches, who went through a similar situation and helped Gatlin rebound.

Mitchell won bronze in the 100 meters and gold in the 4x100 meter relay in the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He also won silver in the 4x100 relay in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Mitchell also received a two-year ban by the International Association of Athletics Federations for elevated testosterone in 1998. He would race internationally just once more, at the 2001 World Championships before retiring and becoming a coach.

“Dennis has done a remarkable job with [Gatlin],” Greene said.

“I’m not surprised at all at Justin’s success. He’s a very talented guy, and very coachable.”

Gatlin’s next task is to challenge Usain Bolt of Jamaica, who set a world record (9.58) in winning the gold at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“We all have our eyes on that prize we want to get at the end,” Gatlin said. “I don’t think I would come back to a sport where I’m OK getting second or third.”

Return of Tyson Gay

The stage was set for a showdown in Beijing. The best American sprinter, Tyson Gay, was going to challenge Bolt for the title of world’s fastest man.

But Gay’s body refused to cooperate. At the trials, Gay pulled his hamstring in the qualifying round of the 200 meters and never made it to the final. By the time he reached Beijing, a hobbled Gay did not make it past the semifinals in the 100 meters. The highly anticipated showdown never took place.

A flubbed baton exchange between Gay and Darvis Patton in the 4x100 relay kept the U.S. team from advancing to the final, and a disappointed Gay left China without making it onto the medal stand.

A 100- and 200-meter specialist since his high school days, Gay won the Kentucky High School State Championships in the 100 and placed second in the 200 before attending Barton County Community College in Kansas. He followed his track coach from Barton to the University of Arkansas, where he became the NCAA champion in the 100 meters.

Gay qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials, making it to the semifinals in the 100 meters. He turned pro the following year and competed in the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki but didn’t medal.

It would be a different story in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Gay won gold medals in the 100, the 200 and the 4x100 meter relay.

Gay’s 9.69 is topped only by Bolt as the American record holder in the 100 meters.

After putting the hamstring injury and the disappointment of Beijing behind him, Gay was ready to focus on the 2012 Olympics in London — and finally taking on Bolt.

But again, Gay’s body had other ideas when a right hip injury slowed him and put his career in jeopardy. He had surgery in 2011 and was sidelined for nearly a year.

“I had a lot of doubts,” Gay said of the surgery. “I tried to tune them out. It was just everything I had to go through. I couldn’t even jog until March.”

Gay would run only once before the Olympic trials in July in Eugene.

In a cold and windy rain, Gay lined up in the blocks. As it was for Gatlin, the trials would be a make-or-break moment. The next 10 seconds could either revive or end the career for Gay, who will turn 30 on Aug. 9 during the London Games.

“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” he said. “I knew I had to run my heart out just to make the team.”

Gay finished just 0.06 seconds behind Gatlin for the silver. Joining Gatlin and Gay in the men’s 100 meters will be Ryan Bailey, 23, who placed third. Neither Gatlin nor Gay will compete in the 200 meters, but they will team up in the 4x100 relay.

Gay called his runner-up finish bittersweet.

“I always like to win, and I came in second,” Gay said. “But at the end of the day, it was about making the team. I got to make sure I turn this little bit of a frown into a happy face. For me to start training in March and make the team is a beautiful accomplishment.”

An Olympic showdown

The men’s 100 meters in London will feature not only two top American sprinters battling back from adversity, but also three top Jamaican sprinters.

Bolt, 25, will be joined by teammates and rivals Asafa Powell, 29, a former world-record holder, and Yohan Blake, 22, the current world champion. Blake, Powell and Gay are the only sprinters who have defeated Bolt.

Greene, who will be at the games as a commentator for Fox Sports and Euro Sports, says this is anybody’s race.

He said that unlike four years ago, Bolt is not a lock for the gold. The qualifying rounds of the men’s 100 meters will be held Aug. 4, and the semifinals and final Aug. 5.

“I don’t think Usain is the Usain of China,” Greene said. “He’s not in that type of shape or form. I think it’s going to be a closer race than everyone thinks.”

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