Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Justin Gatlin trains for comeback

Fourteen-hundred-and sixty-one days, including the leap year for those doing the math - a high school education, an election cycle.

For Justin Gatlin, sprinter extraordinaire, the last four years have crawled by slower than a slug with arthritis, and just as achingly so.

In that speck of time, Gatlin has shrunk from an all-time great in his sport into a pariah. He's plunged from the skies of a seven-figure bank account and role model status into cashing unemployment checks and dismissed as a no-good, cheating laughingstock.

Humbled, Gatlin says what's done is done. It's about what's to come.

"I learned be a man," Gatlin said. "As a professional athlete, everything was handed to me. Things I needed to do, I had people do for me. No more."

Cloaked in a sweat-soaked gray shirt and black tights after a workout at Velocity Sports Performance in Golden Gate last week, Gatlin, 27, said he isn't focused anymore on the 1,461 days that comprise his ban from track and field for a failed drug test in 2006.

It's the first day after, July 25, the day on which his ban expires and Gatlin is once again eligible to lace up the spikes competitively that has his complete attention.

"Some days I think about it," Gatlin said about racing again. "I think I'll be overwhelmed with emotion, power, rage, ready to fire out of the blocks and run until my shoes come off."


In August 2004, Justin Gatlin stood atop the medal stand at the XXVIII Olympics in Athens, Greece, and received a gold medal around his neck for his performance in the men's 100 meters.

The national anthem played. The Stars and Stripes unfurled. Gatlin, at 22 years old and standing in the very birthplace of the Olympiad, was the Fastest Man on Earth.

He became the bright, shining prince of a new era of clean competition in a sport soiled by a history of drug cheats and embroiled neck-deep in the BALCO scandal, which would result in a prison sentence for track icon Marion Jones and a federal felony conviction for Trevor Graham, who had coached both Jones and Gatlin.

Graham's conviction for lying to federal agents was aided by Gatlin, who, facing no criminal prosecution himself, gathered incriminating evidence for authorities by recording phone conversations between the two.

In August 2005, Gatlin again graced the sport's highest podium, this time at the IAAF Track and Field World Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Besides winning the 100 meters, Gatlin also raced to first place in the 200 meters.

His name began being included among the sport's greatest sprinters. Collecting appearance fees upward of $100,000 and a Nike sponsorship to boot, Gatlin's income would soon approach seven figures.

In May 2006, Gatlin ran the 100 meters in 9.77 seconds -- tying the world record. He was now officially, along with Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the fastest man who ever lived.

In public, Gatlin talked of the importance of competing without the use of performance enhancing drugs.

"I understand what it would mean to track and field if I ever tested positive or went down in some scandal," he told Sports Illustrated in a May 2006 article. "At this point that would be one of the hardest hits the sport could take. Not to have an ego about it, but that might be the KO for our sport. I know how important it is that I'm clean."

However, that same month at the Kansas Relays, Gatlin tested positive for testosterone or its precursor. After the positive result was confirmed from Gatlin's "B" sample by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in July, Gatlin's failed test became known to the public.

Initially, Gatlin was banned from competing for eight years. Later, the penalty was reduced to four years -- still, a seeming death sentence for a world-class sprinter.

The sport, dating back to 776 B.C., has managed to survive.

Gatlin has become an afterthought in track. His brilliant victories have since been eclipsed by 23-year-old Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, whose gold-medal performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and in subsequent championship meets have rewritten the record books and ignited the public's imagination, and its suspicions, too.

Gatlin still professes his innocence, claiming that he never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs, that his positive test resulted from the machinations of a vengeful masseuse, Chris Whetstine, who he asserts rubbed a testosterone-laced cream onto Gatlin's skin before he competed that day in Kansas. Whetstine has denied Gatlin's accusation.

"I've always maintained that I've never taken performance enhancing drugs and I'll always stand by that," Gatlin said. "I'm responsible for not being aware of who I was around and their background and not researching them more."

Beaten down by one denial or excuse after another by professional athletes trying to explain away the possibility that they actually cheated to achieve super-human performances, the sporting public rolled its eyes. It was the masseuse. Of course, it was.


Regardless where the truth lies in Gatlin's case, he will be stepping into the starting blocks in July -- sooner, if he is granted an early exemption. Regardless of the bad choice a 24-year-old did or did not make four years ago, Gatlin has lost a lot more than a race as a result of the positive test.

The robust income disappeared faster than the 9.77 seconds it took Gatlin to set the world record. The world record disappeared too, stricken from the books, as if it never happened. He still has his Olympic and world championship medals.

Between the beginning of his ban and now, Gatlin folded his corporation, filed for bankruptcy, collected unemployment, and flirted with an NFL career, taking part in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers mini-camp. The stress was so great on his family, his mother Jeanette's hair began to fall out.

"I was never a selfish guy," said Gatlin, who leaves Naples this week for his home in Atlanta. "All my accomplishments have been for my family, friends and fans. I think that was my lowest moment, thinking about what they had to go through, not just me.

"Them defending my name when they had to step out. Them giving up faith, where they prayed so much, they couldn't pray anymore. It was hard for me to watch, to see them emotionally deteriorate from something going on with me. There were nights when I cried like a baby. There were days when I didn't want to go out in public. I had to muster up the energy to take on the world again, on the track and off.

Unless some kind of evidence surfaces proving his innocence, Gatlin knows he will never be believed.

"People are going to say what they want to say and think what they want to think," said Gatlin, who estimates the ban has cost him more the $5 million. "I could go out there and run a 9.5 and they'll say, 'He's back at it again.' But at the end of the day, I have to be Justin Gatlin. I have to go on living and represent who I am. That's the best thing I can do and not get too involved in people's thoughts."


Gatlin has new coaches, Rana Reider and Loren Seagrave, founder of Velocity Sports Performance, operated locally by NFL Combine guru Derek Touchette. That's what brought him to Naples along with other athletes from Seagrave's Speed Dynamics team.

He hasn't pinpointed his comeback meet yet and there is talk the sport isn't anxious to have him back. There are reports that Gatlin won't be invited to compete on the lucrative European track circuit.

"I believe if I come out and run fast times that would rival a Bolt, then people will want to see me," said Gatlin, who points out he has never lost to the Jamaican. "When I step to the line, I rise to the occasion. I think I have a bigger heart than a lot of the sprinters out there now.

"It makes me excited to start all over again. I've gone from the bottom to the top back to the bottom. Now I'm climbing back to the top."