Farewell tour? No way. Justin Gatlin is here to tell the sport ixnay on his etirementray. With no disrespect to his juniors, the reigning world 100 champ means to give the up-and-coming sprinters a run for their money in Doha this fall.
When the Florida native dashed his first sub-10 way back in ’03, current No. 1 World Ranker Christian Coleman was only 7, No. 2 Ronnie Baker was 9 and No. 3 Noah Lyles was 6. Gatlin might have chuckled at the suggestion—were it put to him after his Olympic gold medal race in ’04—that he’d be vying with these youngsters 16 seasons on. But he is, and at 37 (since February 10), the Tennessee alum is optimistic, armored by his considerable tribulations in the intervening years. At age 35 he handled Usain Bolt at the ’17 Worlds so why not?
Gatlin has had a new coach, Gary Evans, since November, and a large new pack of training mates, prominent among them Omar McLeod (Jamaica’s reigning Olympic and WC 110H gold medalist) and Bahamian Steven Gardiner (400 silver medalist in ’17 with 19.75/43.87 PRs last year).
He says Evans, who over the years has trained speedsters including Xavier Carter in his prep days and current 11.13/22.48 prep soph Tamari Davis, is “the kind of coach who helps get you strong really quick. He gives you that endurance base. It’s sort of how that college philosophy is where you work really hard and you kind of run yourself into shape. You kind of implement a different strategy where if you practice very hard you’ll be in great endurance shape. So it’s different. I reminds me of my days when I was running 200s and 4x4s but I still had enough speed to be competitive in the 100.” It’s a back-to-the-future approach and Gatlin says his elder sprintsman’s frame is “holding up good. I just rest my body when I need to rest and just get ready for the season. I still keep up with the pack, I’m still leading a couple of the reps. I’m still the guy when it comes down to blocks, so everything’s still going as planned.”
However, up until the moment he took down Bolt in the Jamaican’s final century title race a year and a half ago Gatlin gave the prospect no thought. Prior to ’17, as he won four individual Worlds crowns (a 100/200 double in ’05 plus indoor 60s in ’03 & ’12), he always aimed “to strategize way ahead.” His legend-toppling race to gold in London was different. “I only focused on each race,” he said afterwards. “I just went out there and focused on prelims, semis, finals. I totally forgot that you can get a bye [to the next Worlds] if you win. So when I crossed the line and my coach caught me and said, ‘We’ve got the bye for ’19,’ I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t even thinking about ’19, I was trying to get to Zürich at the end of the season.’ I was like, I can’t throw the bye out the window so I think I’ll use 2018 as a year where I’m gonna train hard still… maybe run 5–6 races and go to places where I love the crowd, I love the scene. And just get ready for the odd, odd World Championships that Doha’s going to present where we’re basically running on Halloween.”
Gatlin stayed with the plan, even as scandal engulfed his then-coach Dennis Mitchell, whom he promptly left for an ’18 campaign guided by Brooks Johnson, the elder lion of the coaching game who had previously helped Gatlin revive his career following his 4-year banishment from the sport 2006–10.
Last year Gatlin ran a novel high-altitude 150 in South Africa in March (15.23), some 4x1s in the spring and 5 century races (best of 10.03) before shutting down after July 18. “I think, really, it helped save my body for the next year,” he explains. “I don’t know how to slow down so I needed that time to kind of just rest my body and have a little bit of me time after year after year after year of running. ’15 was a great year, ’16 was the Olympics, ’17 was the World Championships so I just wanted to rest in ’18 and just be able to have fun and then get ready for the next two years.”
The coach’s job, says Evans, “is to build his strength base so he’s ready when the time comes to do what he knows how to do.” There is no project in the offing to remake the race model of a man who dashed 9.74 in ’15, 9.80 to win the ’16 Olympic Trials and 9.92 (-0.8 wind) to topple Bolt in ’17. “When Justin gets to those rounds in Doha, his experience will be his advantage,” he adds. “But I’ll tell you this. He’s motivated. He’s coming out on his off days to do block work with my young sprinters. That tells me a lot, and I promise you [Davis and her training partners are] going to be better as a result. You’ll see that this season.”
About those two words up above, “farewell tour.” They appeared in a press release in mid-January when Gatlin was tentatively scheduled for a relay outing at South Carolina’s shiny new indoor facility. “I don’t even know where that came from,” Gatlin bristles ever so slightly. “So no, it’s not my farewell tour. I’m still keeping to my plan and not focusing on when I’m leaving because now it’s the task at hand—which is defending my championship title and getting ready for Tokyo.” Yes, Tokyo (see sidebar).
For the moment, though, we may see Gatlin competing as soon as this month at South Carolina’s Indoor Open. “I don’t know,” he says. “We have another option coming up, February 16th. We had a cold spell down here in Florida [in January] and I felt a little twinge in my hamstring when we were doing hurdle drills. I just felt I don’t want to chance it, and coach said there’s no reason to chance it so let’s not run. I haven’t run an indoor race competitively around the track since 2002.
“The plan is to get out there and run some 200s. I don’t know how competitive I’m going to be in it so we’re just going to get out there in order to be in shape to run. I always get in shape to run a 200 when my 100-meter times are good but [as a primary event in recent seasons] I’ve just never competed in the 200. It takes a lot out of you sometimes if you’re just known as a 100-meter sprinter.”
Any words for Coleman, Baker and Lyles? Or for the likes of Michael Norman, who as a prep senior pipped Gatlin in his ’16 Trials 200 semi before the elder sprinter claimed the final? “No,” says the ultra-vet, “I don’t have a message now. Wait till we get a little closer to it being the season.” That’s when time will tell.