By Ann Tatko
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - At times, Justin Gatlin still sounds like the nonchalant, laid-back boy who struggled with an attention deficit disorder.

He speaks so casually about his role as America’s next promising track sprinter, as if he doesn’t realize what he has accomplished.

Then, he smiles, and in the same breezy manner, makes it clear he’s fully aware of how far he has come, and how much further he can go.

Why get a big head with it?'' he asked during a newsconference recently in Sacramento. I just try to be normal Justin Gatlin, and not let all that hype get to me. I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of doing.

There's a lot of talented sprinters out there. And yes,'' he said with a smile, I consider myself to be one of them.’’

So should the rest of the world.

In his first professional race, Gatlin lined up next to former world champion Maurice Greene and beat him,finishing the 60-meter race second behind Terrence Trammell. He stamped his rookie season by winning the 2003 World Indoor 60-meter title.

A hamstring injury slowed him during the outdoor season, but not long enough to keep him from track’s biggest payday. He hit the $500,000 jackpot when he won the 100 meters at the Moscow Challenge.

When I came across the line, I said, 'I'm rich,''''Gatlin recalled. I was actually more impressed with how I raced than the money. Honestly, when I heard it was that much money, I thought it was a gimmick.’’

Good thing he didn’t let the money go to his head. He’s still wading through red tape to get to his first installment of $100,000.

Let me tell you, big money moves slow,'' he said.It’s still a little sketchy how the pay-outs work. I’m trying to be patient.’’

Patience hasn’t always come easily.

From the time he was 8, growing up in New York City, Gatlin was the lanky kid hurdling fire hydrants, fences and just about anything else that got in his way. By high school, he was single-handedly leading his team to the Florida state title.

In two years, he won six NCAA titles at Tennessee, before deciding to turn professional in 2003.

Granted, the road to stardom almost derailed for him in 2001.

He took a prescription medicine for his attention deficit disorder that contained amphetamine, a banned substance.
At the junior national championships, he tested positive and received a two-year suspension.
Track’s world governing body reinstated him after only one year. But the doping offense stands, meaning another positive drug test would result in a lifetime ban from competition.

I have a strike against me, and I'm man enough to own up to that,'' Gatlin said. I have to be more aware of what I take, even NyQuil.’’

He was especially careful what medication he took for his hamstring injury, though he was less conscientious about his recovery time. Three times, Gatlin reinjured himself after returning to competition too quickly last season.
In the end, he prevailed at the Moscow Challenge.

I've learned to be patient with some things,'' Gatlin said. Like now, I’m going to treat every racethis year like it’s the Olympics.’’

Despite a drop-off over the past year, Greene and world record holder Tim Montgomery are still favorites heading into this summer’s Olympic Trials in Sacramento. But Gatlin, who also runs the 200, believes his name belongs among the top sprinters.

After everything that has happened,'' Gatlin said,this is my chance to show I’m the real deal.’’