Sprinters lead short athletic lives. Their success or failure is measured in highly adrenalized 10-second spans, and most retire after two or three shots at Olympic glory. The smallest misstep is professionally fatal. Which is why it’s astonishing that the best American hope to dethrone Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt in London this August is 30-year-old Justin Gatlin. In 2004, Gatlin was seen as the next Carl Lewis: a clean-cut American with a world record and a gold medal in the 100 meters. Then came the positive drug test before a meaningless Kansas race (Gatlin’s coach, the now infamous, BALCO-implicated Trevor Graham, claimed a massage therapist sabotaged Gatlin with laced leg cream), the separation with Graham, and the four-year ban. While Gatlin waited it out at home in Florida, Bolt arrived with a fury, destroying the 2008 Olympics in sport-altering fashion. Since then, Gatlin has quietly done the improbable: come back. He returned to competition last year, earning a spot at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea—he made it to the semifinals despite competing with frostbitten toes after entering a cryotherapy chamber in sweaty socks. This March in Istanbul, he won the World Indoor Championships in the 60 meters with the same time he ran in 2003 (6.46 seconds). Abe Streep spoke with Gatlin as he geared up for the Olympic Trials, which begin June 21 in Eugene, Oregon.
So who’s the best American sprinter right now?
I’m the one with the most up-to-date hardware.
Sprinting has traditionally been a U.S.-dominated sport, and now Jamaica is the talk of the track world. Do you take that challenge personally?
At first I think we just sat back, because Americans dominated sprint for so long—like, Well, they’re having a good run, but it’ll be over soon. But we can’t think like that. We have to really understand that this could be a changing of the guard if we don’t fight back.
Some would say the guard has changed.
They may have a couple of sprinters who have been running well. I think we have the numbers on our side. Our Trials are so deep, the depth of sprinting is so talented. It’s just so hard to make it through the Trials that it seems like the Olympics are a walk in the park sometimes.
How do you hang with Bolt over those last 40 meters, when his long stride takes over?
Even if you watch the races I won—the indoor titles and the Olympics—I’ve never really been a superfast starter. I have a long stride and a long, powerful cadence toward the last 40 meters. I think I probably have the only stride to match his.
When he calls himself the greatest natural athlete the world has ever seen, what do you think?
I didn’t know this was a Bolt interview.
Fair enough. What was going through your head the first time you ran competitively after the ban?
You run through everything. You have to physically and mentally get yourself ready. You have to make sure you build up your confidence. So it was kind of a checklist. Now I think I have it all together. I’m physically ready, I’m strong, I’m in shape, I lost a lot of weight, and now, mentally, winning the indoor worlds has set me up for going outdoors.
What’s it like, the moment right before you run? You’re on for only nine seconds.
It’s a mix between a drag race and jumping into freezing cold water for the first time. You know it’s cold, but you know you gotta do it—you don’t want to be the guy who’s standing there on the sideline, so you jump in and get it done. You can’t back down. You’re on the line: go after it. And the drag race part—you work so hard, your team is there, you’re massaged, you stretched, you warmed up properly, the people are there to cheer you on. You’re ready. So when that gun goes off, you have to put all your effort, all your emotions, all your feelings, all your physical power into every step.