VOL. 41 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 2, 2017
35-year-old Gatlin still among world’s fastest
By John Glennon
Justin Gatlin competes in the mens 200-meter dash during the Rio Olympic Games. Gatlin, a former UT star, failed to qualify for the 200 finals but took the silver medal in the 100-meter dash, finishing second to Usain Bolt. He will be honored as the Professional Male Athlete of the Year by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. -- Mike Egerton/Pa Wire
In the aftermath of his age-defying Olympic performance last year in Brazil, it was easy to believe sprinter Justin Gatlin would just jog off into retirement from professional competition.
What more could reasonably be expected of the 35-year-old Gatlin, a former University of Tennessee star who on Saturday will be honored by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame as its professional male athlete of the year?
In 2016, he’d become the oldest sprinter to medal in Olympic history, capturing the silver for the United States by running the 100-meter dash in 9.89 seconds. He finished second only to Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, considered by most to be the greatest sprinter in history.
Close to a year later, however, Gatlin has shown no signs of retiring.
He’s still training in Florida, still competing in international meets around the globe and still has aspirations of competing in his fourth Olympic games – 2020 in Tokyo – when he would at age 38.
“I’m working on that right now – getting ready for this season,” Gatlin says during a recent phone interview. “Three more years to go, so, I think I can push for another three and work towards Tokyo.
“If I can make it that far, that will definitely be good enough for me – I can throw in the towel then.”
A six-time former NCAA champion when he attended Tennessee from 2000 to 2002, Gatlin would surely love another shot at Bolt.
The Jamaican sensation, who’s captured eight Olympic gold medals, bested Gatlin in the 100-meters at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, as well as the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.
The 30-year-old Bolt has said he will retire after the World Championships in London later this summer, but Gatlin isn’t 100 percent sure that will happen.
“I would like to buy into (Bolt’s plans to retire), but I’m thinking at this point in time, I’m kind of on the fence about that,” Gatlin explains.
“I can understand when you have accomplished so much in your career, like him, that there’s nothing left for you to do but do it over and over again.
“You kind of lose that hunger and sensation to be great. He has other passions in his life. So it will be interesting to see what he’ll do next.”
As difficult as it’s been to compete in Bolt’s shadow for the last several years, Gatlin credits the 6-foot-5, 207-pounder – known as “The Lightning Bolt” – for continually pushing him to peak performances.
Gatlin, for instance, produced seven 100-meter times of 9.95 or faster in 2016, more than any other athlete.
“(Bolt) has definitely motivated me to get back on the grind and be the athlete I am today,” Gatlin says. “He’s pushed me to times I never thought I would run.
“My work ethic went up through the roof because I felt like if one man could do it, the next man could do it, and I wanted to be that next man. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Gatlin’s pro career began well before Bolt burst onto the scene, and the Brooklyn, New York, native’s past is a checkered one. The early highlights included a gold medal at the 100-meter dash in the 2004 Olympics and golds in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the 2005 World Championships.
But those titles were squeezed between two bans from the sport.
The first occurred in 2001, a two-year ban for amphetamines that Gatlin says came from an attention-deficit disorder medicine he’d taken since childhood. The second, reportedly for a testosterone-related substance, occurred in 2006 and would ultimately result in a four-year ban from the sport.
Gatlin said at the time he never knowingly used a banned substance or authorized anyone to administer a banned substance to him.
It didn’t take too long for Gatlin to reclaim a position near the top of the sprinting world when he returned from the second ban. He won the United States’ 100-meter time trials in 2012, earned a bronze medal in the 100 at the 2012 Olympics and captured a pair of silver medals in the 2013 World Championships.
“For me, stepping back in after my suspension, I had a lot of skeptics, a lot of doubters and critics,” Gatlin pointed out.
“But I’ve just kept my head down and kept focused on what I had to do. I know my God-given talent is running fast and competing very hard to the best of my abilities, so I’ve been doing that.”
The lengthy spells that kept Gatlin away from competition may actually be part of the reason he’s still going strong today.
“I think one of the things that has helped Justin with his longevity, ironically, is that he had a gap of a few years where he was not competing,” says Jill Geer, USA Track and Field spokeswoman. “That saved wear and tear on his body, which helps him from a physical perspective.
“But it’s also rare to find an athlete in track and field, especially a sprinter at his age, who is as passionate as he is. That competitive fire is as passionate now, perhaps even more so, than it was for him when he was younger.”
Will that fire be enough to push Gatlin all the way to the 2020 Olympics?
If so, he might well find himself running alongside another emerging standout University of Tennessee sprinter. Christian Coleman, who will be honored by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame as its amateur male athlete of the year, won the most recent NCAA Indoor National Championships in the 60- and 200-meter dashes.
“He’s the new sensation, really making a name for himself in the college ranks,” Gatlin says. “He’s making a lot of guys quiver in the pro realm already. It would be an honor to be on another Olympic team with him, and hopefully, we’d be able to run on a relay together.”
Coleman, by the way, is 21, some 14 years younger than Gatlin.
“Justin’s still going strong because he just continues to work hard and keep competing,” Geer adds.
“But even with all the talent in the world, you can’t keep competing if you don’t have that desire to win. That’s what he still has, and he’s probably had it as long as anyone who’s been in the sport.”
Reach John Glennon at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.