Deep in a Florida valley, hidden from the road and scorched by the sun, lies an elite athletics track. This is where the second-fastest man in the world, Tyson Gay, trains. Nobody much comes here, aside from other athletes, “and we like it that way” says Lance Brauman, Gay’s coach of nine years.
Down in that valley, where the orange trees used to grow until a heavy frost killed them all one winter, Gay and Brauman steer clear of the media spotlight. Neither likes chitchat. Both have been through personal traumas they would rather not share.
Right now Gay is struggling with yet another injury. He prefers to call it a “niggle”, but the 27-year-old has just spent a week on strong painkillers because it was too painful for him to run without; last weekend he withdrew from the New York Diamond League race. Gay says he is “mentally drained” by it all.
It does not help that his nemesis, the fastest man in the world, is living the good life. When Usain Bolt appears on US television, Gay bristles.
“It gets to him,” says Michael Stroh, Gay’s live-in personal assistant and massage therapist. “When he sees Usain making the top-10 list on the sports channel and he doesn’t, he doesn’t like it. Or that Gatorade advert [in which Bolt is the only non-American sports star featured].”
It all seems rather cruel for a man who last year ran 9.69 seconds – an American record – carrying a double groin strain. It is the same time Bolt ran in 2008 when the crowd at the Beijing Olympics could barely believe what they saw. Still, Gay does not have even half the profile.
“It’s frustrating. At the end of the day it’s not like he’s not running fast,” Brauman says. “He’s just trying to beat a guy that’s seven inches taller than him. You do the maths.”
Typically, Gay does not speak much when he meets the media. Sometimes he says: “Yes, ma’am.” Sometimes he does not even bother with a word, just: “Mm-hmm.” On the track he does not clown around like Bolt; off the track he is more likely to be in tucked up in bed than out clubbing like the Jamaican. He is focused and austere, with intimidating bulging eyeballs.
Brauman has his similarities. Both are men of few words. “Me and him we can be in the same room for two hours and hardly say three words,” he says.
So on the subject of his time in prison for mail fraud, theft and embezzlement – or as Gay puts it “bending the system” – while coaching at Barton County Community College, Kansas, Brauman is reluctant to elaborate. “I don’t even really talk about this,” he says of the year he spent at a federal correctional institution in Texas, in 2006. Brauman was found guilty of cooking the books for kids on scholarship funds, supplementing their income with illegal payments of federal work-study money. “The kids would work campus jobs, but there wasn’t enough work for them all to do so you bump up a couple of hours so they can get their bill paid. Maybe they worked 10 hours and you write down that they worked 14.”
“The college wanted me to admit that I purposely did that to be fraudulent to the US government, and I didn’t see it that way. I simply stated what it was. I was told to treat scholarship people this way and that’s what I did. They wanted me to testify against other people and my refusal to do so was why I ended up in jail.”
Brauman gazes at the horizon, the view wobbling in the mid-afternoon heat. He was found guilty, but he never felt guilty for what he did.
“It still doesn’t rank as a real big deal to me. My situation, nobody really benefited from it except for some kids going to school. There were a whole lot of negatives in the media, but there were a lot of positives for the kids who went to school there, we’re talking [the Olympic silver medallists] Bernard Williams and Hyleas Fountain, people that I coached – [the former triple jump world champion] Walter Davis, [the relay gold medallist] Aleen Bailey, [the 200m Olympic gold medallist] Veronica Campbell-Brown. I coached all those people. Tons. At the last Olympic games there were some 30 people competing that I coached and all of them went to that college.”
Brauman spent the 2006-07 season in prison, the same period in which Gay, and the rest of the training group, were preparing for the World Athletics Championships in Osaka. Before he left he compiled a training programme for each athlete, from prison he rationed out his 300 minutes per month of telephone calls to speak to each athlete once a week. When Gay and Campbell-Brown won gold medals in the sprints, Brauman watched from inside.
“There were TVs in jail so I could watch the race, but the final wasn’t streamed live that day so I made a phone call [to his wife] so that I knew the results before it came on television. The day of Tyson’s final was actually the last day I was in jail before I went home. Veronica won the next day and I left the morning after that.”
Gay testified in court for Brauman, and had his college records removed from the record books. He prefers not to speak about that time, insisting that it wasn’t a big deal, fiddling with his BlackBerry, looking at his lap. But how can it not be a big deal?
“OK it was a big deal,” he concedes, with an irritable look. “It was a blow. You worry about what’s going to happen without your coach. But I got over it real quick.” He sniffs. "I even went to visit him two or three times in jail. I wasn’t angry. I understood that he had to go away for a little bit, a little vacation I guess.
“It was my first time in jail and it was a little bit strange but it wasn’t like I was talking to him behind the glass, you know, he was in a federal prison, he could come out, sit on a chair and talk.”
Why did he visit? Gay speaks earnestly. “That was just out of respect, man, you know what I’m saying? If I ever went to jail I’d want somebody to visit me. If you write letters to someone in jail or you go visit them that means a lot to them. You never know what’s going on in their mind – they might think their life’s all over, they have nothing left to live for. You know. I would expect the same thing.”
Brauman, who stood to lose his athletes, his reputation and his career, appreciated the support. “It meant a lot to me that he stayed and Veronica stayed,” he says now. “They stuck by me through some hard times just like I stuck with them through some hard times. All that had to go down with their names being in the paper and all the negative publicity they ended up getting because of my situation, and yet they were still able to run well and win.”
Gay says he never thinks about that period any more. He has his own regrets to focus on, namely making up for lost time with his daughter, Trinity, born while Gay was still at high school. “I sometimes wish I was a better parent,” he says.
“I’m always away. I had to sacrifice a lot of things when I went off to college to try to pursue my dreams and I had a little girl at home. I missed her first track meet, I missed a lot of things I don’t want to have missed.”
Trinity runs track these days, an experience that has, says Gay, helped her to understand what her father does. “She says she wants me to beat Usain. She says: ‘Beat him daddy.’” He smiles. He is still getting his head around having a daughter.
"Women are different, you know. When I spend time with her she doesn’t want to watch me play PlayStation, she wants to watch the Disney channel and play with her Nintendo DS thing. When she comes to stay with me, even though she hasn’t seen me in a long time, she sees me, hugs me, kisses me, and then she’s at the track just hanging around the female athletes.
“That’s why it’s important I spend a lot of time with her to understand how she works. It’s always something different with her, a new colour, pink one year, purple the next. I can almost not keep up with it.” He looks genuinely baffled, and then shakes his head.
“I just get so busy with track and trying to be the best in the world.” He stares straight ahead, contemplating the full-time job that demands finding an extra 0.11sec on the competition. He may still be missing that 100m world record, but if there was a world record for application, Gay would be No1 by now.