By Gene Cherry
EUGENE, Oregon, June 22 (Reuters) – At the ripe old age of 30, Justin Gatlin feels like a kid again. The darkness of a four-year doping suspension has faded and sprinting has become fun once more for the 2004 Olympic champion.
This year Gatlin has been the fastest American to run 100 meters and he will be eager to prove his worth to the team when he steps up at a U.S. Olympic trials for the first time since 2004 on Saturday.
“This is my first time being really excited – almost kid-like – in a very long time,” the 2012 world indoor champion told a news conference.
“I’m back and I’m in good shape.”
His task this weekend will be stay ahead or within grasp of the bevy of sprinters who have taken the U.S. 100 meters reins while and after Gatlin served his 2006 to 2010 doping suspension for a positive drugs test.
There is former world champion Tyson Gay, himself on the rebound from hip surgery, and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix to mention a few.
All will be aiming for a top-three finish in Sunday’s final and a ticket to the London Olympics. There is no other way to make the team.
Gatlin checks in with the top U.S. time of 9.87 seconds, but as Gay noted this week no one is going to sit around and award you an Olympic berth on past laurels.
“I don’t think anybody had the expectation of me coming this far, but just to come back and be able to compete was a victory within itself,” said Gatlin, who made the U.S. 2011 world championship team but was eliminated in the semi-finals at Daegu.
A new coach, retired world-class sprinter Dennis Mitchell, has brought Gatlin’s bulking body down to sprinter’s weight and fired up in the normally laid back runner.
Gatlin also has come to understand and appreciate life outside the fast circle, lessons he learned during his four years away from the track.
Yet he still has the burning desire to beat the current king of athletics, Jamaican world record holder Usain Bolt.
“I take my hat off to him,” Gatlin said. “He is a great athlete, but at the same time he is human. He’s beatable.”
Whether Gatlin, who won the 2004 Olympics in 9.85 seconds can run near Bolt’s world record of 9.58 is not the focus of Mitchell’s plan for the 2005 world double sprint champion.
“The plan is to be able to run as fast as we possibly can when the time comes,” the former sprinter said. “We are going to have to bring our best game to make the team.”
But just in case Bolt is tuning in, Mitchell says he and Gatlin are working on a plan to defeat the reigning Olympic champion in London.
Details Mitchell would not disclose but he offered this observation:
“There is not a guy on the planet who is not beatable. No one is running the perfect race.”