DES MOINES, Iowa -- In victory or in defeat, in exultation or in sorrow, at the beginning or at the end, athletes leave images. Namath's index finger wagging in the tropical air. Kirk Gibson pumping his right arm as he rounded second base. Jordan holding that finish in Salt Lake City. Last summer on the first Sunday in August, U. S. sprinter Tyson Gay finished fourth in the 100 meters at the Olympic Games in London, missing teammate Justin Gatlin's bronze medal by .01 seconds, a margin not discernible to the naked eye. He was three days shy of his 30th birthday but seemed much older from so many races run on hard tracks from Fayetteville (where he ran for Arkansas) to Shanghai (were he set the American record of 9.69 seconds in the late summer of 2009).
He walked into the belly of the Olympic Stadium in his red Team USA unitard and his Adidas spikes. He was crying. Not the usual beaten-athlete, wipe-away-a-stray-tear crying. These were the deep, sobs of a genuinely good-natured man who knew that he had almost certainly seen his last chance at an individual Olympic medal flushed away. "I gave it my best, ain't nothing else I could do,'' said Gay that night. "I feel like I let a lot of people down. I don't have excuses, man. I gave it my all.'' For nearly a decade, Gay had been one of the best sprinters in U.S. history (and that is the best sprinting history of all), but it felt like he was finished. Too many injuries, too many explosive starts, too many hours on the rubbing table and in cold tubs. That was the image: A grown man weeping in the night, having run faster than anyone imagines, but also having fallen short. (Though he did win a cleansing silver medal in 4X100-meter relay).
Nearly 11 months later Gay has been athletically reborn. Last night he ran the wrong way (keep reading) down a pale blue track at Drake Stadium to win the 100 meters at the USA Track and Field national championships. He ran 9.75 seconds, the fourth-fastest wind-legal time of his career and his best since he ran that 9.69 in September of 2009, in a blazing, but technically imperfect race that Gay likened to "a guy chasing after a bus." His time matched the 10th-fastest time in history, but more pointedly, was just the second time since 2009 that Gay has dipped under 9.80 seconds (a place where only world record holder Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, Gay, Gatlin, Maurice Greene and Asafa Powell have gone).
"When Tyson is healthy, he can do all kinds of stuff," said 2000 Olympic 100-meter champion and former world record holder Greene, who watched the race from the stands in the homestretch. "It's taken him a few years to get back, but he's taking care of his body now."
After the race, Gay emphasized the importance of getting his body right "When you're healthy, it's a lot more level playing field. Everything feels good. I feel good with the victory."
Gay was hesitant to paint in broad, emotional strokes after the win, his first national title since he won the 2008 Olympic Trials and two days later blew out a hamstring in the 200-meter heats, beginning a four-year battle with assorted injuries. One of his agents, Rich Kenah, stood nearby and said, "Trust me, he's over the moon about this."
Gay's victory came minutes after the lyrically named 21-year-old English Gardner, a slightly built, 5-foot-6 native of Voorhees, N.J. who earlier this month won the NCAA 100-meter title in her final season at Oregon, added the national championship in a personal best of 10.85 seconds. "Nobody thinks this little, bitty girl from New Jersey can run like that," said Gardner, who is now coached by John Smith, after the race. The races decided the U.S. athletes who will run at the world championships in Moscow in mid-August; Gay joins runner-up Gatlin and third-place finisher Charles Silmon, the NCAA champion from TCU who is now running professionally.
Gardner joins second-place finisher Octavious Freeman, who just finished her sophomore year at Central Florida, and veteran Alex Anderson; along with defending world champion Carmelita Jeter, who did not compete in Des Moines because of an injury.
The races were run in bizarre fashion. Citing "extreme headwinds," USATF officials, in consultation with athletes, coaches and agents, turned around all races shorter than 200 meters and ran them in the opposite direction. Hence, both 100-meter finals started where they would customarily finish and finished where they would customarily start. They were run from right to right to left in front of the home stands, with spectators turning their heads to the left, instead of to the right. It looked vaguely like a baseball player hitting and then running to third base -- The athletes also ran into a padding at the end of the straightway, as they would in an indoor race, a situation that Gay called "scary."
Gay's victory was not a shock when viewed though the prism of his recent performances. He had run 9.86 in May, the fastest time in the world in 2013, but it remained uncertain how his battered body would hold up through three rounds in the heat --Temperatures have approached 90 degrees for the past two days. He easily advanced through Thursday's first round and then Friday night ran a wind-aided (2.4 meters per second) 9.75 in the semifinals. More impressively, he easily powered past Gatlin in that race, after Gatlin had beaten him from the blocks.
In the final, Gatlin was again out first. Gay looked sluggish, but Greene said, "It wasn't a great start, but it was an efficient start, as far as getting him into the rest of his race." At 40 meters, Gay again ripped past Gatlin. "You know that's what Tyson is going to do,'' said Gatlin. "He's going to run great from 40 to 80 meters." Gatlin also ran the final with a wrap visible below his unitard on his right leg; he said he is nursing a hamstring strain suffered while running in Europe earlier this month, when he defeated Bolt in Rome.
Gay's victory tempts blasphemy: Is this the year that he takes down Bolt (something he did routinely prior to Bolt's explosion in 2008)? Bolt has been sub-Bolt -- or, more likely Club Bolt -- thus far in 2013. His best time of the season is the 9.94 he ran Friday night in winning the Jamaican national championships. Blake did not run, due to an injury, but as the defending world champion, has a bye into the Moscow worlds. "If Bolt is the guy who ran [his world record of 9.58], nobody's going to beat that guy," said Greene. "But if he's the guy who has been running this year, Tyson can beat that guy."
Gay slammed brakes on that talk. "I was just getting ready for this meet," he said Friday night. "Everybody knows that when it counts, [Bolt] is going to be ready. If you don't bring your A game.... Bye, bye. You know?'' Gay will run at least two meets in Europe before Moscow, and possibly a third. Gay is entered in the 200 meters here, and said he will decide on Saturday morning whether to run. Given his injury history, it would seem an unnecessary risk, but Kenah said, ``He's got that warrior mentality.''
For now, for this moment, he has reclaimed his past career. His performance in London was painful and unfulfilling, but honorable and fast. Few would have expected him to match it again. Sprinters age quickly, rushing into retirement on rails. Gay has defied this convention and moved backward in time. Now he chases a fresh, tearless image to leave behind.