Age Is No Barrier For 30-Something Justin Gatlin

Justin Gatlin was a mere lad of 30 when he won the Olympic Trials 100 for the first time in ’12. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

The third in a series of articles we’ll be posting over the next few days as part of our Olympic Trials Men’s 100 Preview.

ALREADY THE OLDEST MAN ever to win an Olympic Trials 100, Justin Gatlin will aim to persevere well past Peter Gerhardt and make himself the oldest-ever U.S. Olympian in the event. Peter Gerhardt? He was 173 days beyond his 34th birthday when he placed 2nd in the 1912 Western Trials (there was a series of selection meets in those days) and earned his berth to the Games in Stockholm. Gatlin, 29 days younger than Gerhardt’s date-of-qualification age when he won at the last OT, will have reached 38 years, 132 days, if he qualifies for a fourth time in Eugene this June. Even Carl Lewis qualified for just a pair of Games in the 100.

Gatlin doesn’t spend a lot of time pondering longevity records, though. He’s occupied with keeping himself in the mix as Christian Coleman’s 9.76 World Champs win—with Gatlin grabbing silver—inched him closer to the elder sprinter’s 9.74 PR from ’15 and beyond the identical 9.80s Gatlin put up to win the Trials of ’12 and ’16. Gatlin’s chief asset, he says, is “well, I think my wisdom. You know, I just try to have good angles, compete hard and just finish the race 100%. And stay healthy. I think right now just the competitiveness I have is going to help me. I could do everything. I’ve been there before.”

The hamstring strain that forced Gatlin to pull up in the Zagreb 100 just 2 weeks before Doha last fall is behind him he says, as his 9.89 race in the Worlds final and gold-medal relay carry suggested. “I think that even last season I was really hungry to start training for 2020 ’cause of all the things I could fix technically in the beginning [of the race],” he says. “I’d be able to do it now in 2020. So I was excited to be able to come into the season. Training’s going really well.” Having eschewed indoor racing since ’12, Gatlin—coached in Clermont, Florida, by Dennis Mitchell (admittedly not an uncontroversial name) in a powerhouse training group—is stepping through training that has worked for him in the past. “I know exactly the drills I have to do to become stronger,” he says. “At times before—like in ’16, even ’15—when I got injured I wasn’t able to work on certain aspects of certain things. But now I can go back—’cause I am a little older, I’m also a little wiser—and try to recreate a great season like 2015, but even be a smarter athlete to be able to finish races running the fastest. So that’s what I’m looking for.”

Asked if he feels any different than 4 years ago training into the Rio Olympic season, he answers quickly: “Way better. I feel better, definitely. I think that trying to find that rhythm and not trying to rush into a season and really taking my time and staying healthy, finishing workouts properly, those kinds of things have really helped now and in the past. So I think I feel way better than ’16, for sure.”

At his age, at any age, Gatlin says, and not least because the ’19 season ended in October, “It feels really good to be able to take your time. I guess the name of the game for us is just to run fast the whole time, but when you’re able to take your time and get in shape, you know, build your speed up, It’s less shocking and jarring on the body and it feels way more rewarding to be able to go into the season healthy and strong and feeling dominant.”

With the career of Usain Bolt—during whose preternatural Olympic and World Championships skein Gatlin placed 3rd in London in ’12, and 2nd in ’13, ’15 and ’16 before finally besting the tall man in ’17—now over, the Jamaican recently said, “My greatest competitor was Justin Gatlin. For the last five years of my career, he kept me on my toes, and I will always respect him for that.”

But Gatlin, roughly 4½ years older than Bolt, remains unafflicted with weariness at the routine or eager to step away from competition. “No, I can’t, man,” Gatlin says. “I’m a fan of the sport. I love training and getting faster and just competing. I love that part. So it’s hard to turn that off, it’s hard to not have love for it. So I will always compete, work hard and run fast, do everything I’m supposed to do to be able to be the best athlete I can be—so when I’m done I have no regrets. I want to live and love for it.”

From experience—his first OT was back in ’04—Gatlin knows how he likes to handle the biggest of all selection meets: like a building block. “It’s just trying to stay focused on the path,” he says, “thinking about everything going into the season as if it would be for the Trials—being focused, staying hungry and putting on a good show from the start. I think that’s what’s going to help build a foundation.”