Gatlin, what a dashing young man
By Dick Patrick, USA TODAY

STANFORD, Calif. — Justin Gatlin, “the next Carl Lewis” according to his coach, knows how to make a debut. It’s what he might do for an encore that has the track world wondering if he truly is the next great U.S. sprinter.

• In 2001, as a Tennessee freshman coming off a promising but not overly hyped prep career, Gatlin won the 100 and 200 meters in his first NCAA outdoor championships.

• In 2003, running as a professional for the first time, he won the U.S. and world indoor titles in the 60.

“Sometimes I can’t believe he’s 21 years old,” says Gatlin’s coach, Trevor Graham, who until last fall coached Marion Jones to a six-year supremacy among female sprinters and Tim Montgomery to the world record in the 100. (Related Item: Gatlin to pass on hurdles)

“His range, his ability, his learning skills — the way he carries himself is like a true professional. He follows instructions well. He follows details. If it’s getting up at 6, he’s up. I don’t have to worry. I’ve never seen that before.”

What remains to be seen is Gatlin’s debut in the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which start today and conclude Sunday at Stanford. Gatlin is scheduled in the 100 today and Friday and the 200 Saturday and Sunday.

“I’m trying to hold onto my titles, as I did in college,” says Gatlin, who grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and now lives and trains in Raleigh, N.C. “Track is just like life: History repeats itself. I’m in the same predicament I was my freshman year. Can this young rookie hang with the big dogs?”

Oh, to be young and swift

Justin Gatlin is just one of the new kids in the blocks who could change the sprint picture in the USA a year before the Summer Olympics in Athens. Others to look for:

Age Event(s) Comment
John Capel 24 100, 200 Ran 200 in Sydney, then tried the NFL
Ramon Clay 27 200 Won U.S. title last year
J.J. Johnson 27 100, 200 Ex-basketball, football player has potential
Darvis Patton 23 200 Second in U.S. meet
a year ago

Allyson Felix 17 200 Prep senior already big time
Muna Lee 21 100, 200 LSU senior a college women’s star
Sanya Richards 18 400 Twice set world junior record
Kelli White 26 100, 200 Has fastest 100 in world this year

The biggest dogs are Maurice Greene, the 100 Olympic champ and three-time world titlist, and Montgomery, who set the world record of 9.78 in the 100 in September and soon after, with Jones, parted company with Graham. Montgomery (9.78) and Greene (9.79) have run significantly faster in the 100 than Gatlin (10.05), who holds his own against them in the 200.

What could help Gatlin is that neither Montgomery nor Greene has been overly impressive this season. Montgomery created controversy early in the year for working briefly with Canadian coach Charlie Francis.
Montgomery has yet to stabilize his coaching situation or break 10 seconds this year. He and Jones await the birth of their first child, due in July.

Greene is coming off the most disappointing year of his career — he was dubbed Slo-Mo by Europeans last summer — though he showed signs of life recently with a 9.94 win.

“Right now it’s hard to get a read on Tim,” Gatlin says. "He’s running fairly good. Maurice seems back to normal.

“They’re both great athletes. I like that. I want them to get back to where they were so they can bring out the best in me.”

Gatlin’s condition also is a question mark. Last month Gatlin pulled up in a 200 in Mexico City with an injury to his left hamstring, what he describes as a strain and buildup of scar tissue. He hasn’t raced since.

“When I got injured, it set me back a little,” he says. “I was a little upset, a little afraid it would set me back too far. But I took my time and let it heal. I didn’t try to rush anything.”

Gatlin says he’s not worried about his lack of racing leading into the meet, in which he’s scheduled for six races in four days.

“I’m trying to do what I did indoors, where my second race I was national champion and my third race I was world champion,” he says. “I feel that less races, but grade-A races, can lead to better championships and a longer career for me.”

Considering his collegiate success — six NCAA titles in two years — it’s mildly surprising Gatlin has never competed in the U.S. championships. In 2001 he and Tennessee assistant Vince Anderson opted for the U.S. junior meet, where Gatlin won an unprecedented triple, taking the 100, 200 and 110 hurdles.

Last year Gatlin was ineligible for the U.S. championships because of unusual circumstances. He tested positive for amphetamines in the 2001 U.S. junior meet — costing him the titles — and was subject to a two-year suspension. (He was eligible for college competition because the NCAA has no drug-testing reciprocity.)

Gatlin appealed the suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), demonstrating the positive drug test resulted from years of taking prescribed medication for attention deficit disorder.

CAS ruled the violation was inadvertent and strongly urged the international track federation to reinstate him. That happened last summer, midway through the ban.

Gatlin says he hasn’t taken the medication since.

After reinstatement, Gatlin announced he was leaving Tennessee to turn pro. In the fall he began working with Graham while taking classes at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh to complete a degree in communications.

“I feel I’m a more focused, more disciplined athlete now,” Gatlin says.

“When I came out of college, I thought I knew everything about sprinting. When I got (with Graham), I was in for a rude awakening. In college I thought sprinting had a lot to do with legs, not the upper body. I’ve learned that for a lot of races your shoulders and the power you exert from you shoulders, as well as your legs, have to be equal if you want to run very fast.”

Not to mention another key upper body part for a world-class sprinter, his mind.

“Justin’s very, very competitive,” Graham says. "He doesn’t like to lose. Nobody does, but this kid’s different. When it comes to competition, it just wakes him up. He gets real excited.

“He’s not afraid. He loves competition.”