The only blemish on Justin Gatlin’s 27–1 record over the last three years can be attributed to one man—Usain Bolt. Even at 34, Justin Gatlin will be America’s best hope in the short sprints at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and he is optimistic about it.
Gatlin got off to a blazing start in 2015, finishing four 100-meter races under 9.80 before the world championships. He looked favored for the gold medal in Beijing, but he lost control of his form in the closing seconds and finish with a silver medal. He would also finish second to Bolt in the 200-meter.
While he joked around with Bolt in the post-race press conferences, the losses took their toll on Gatlin. He took a long break from running, resumed training, got hurt and is now off to a conservative start to the season. If he can get to peak form in time for Rio, he has a chance to put the United States atop the podium for the first time since he won gold at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
Sports Illustrated: You like to give a nickname to your season every year. What’s this year’s goal?
Justin Gatlin: This is the year of the moment. For me, last year was a good blueprint where I went out and competed. When it was time to compete, I raced. There’s a difference. When you’re in competition, there’s starting blocks, the drive phase and your top-end speed. When the finals came around, I raced like it was a street-race. I got sucked into what everyone wanted to see. That’s all good but I trained all year to go out and execute from start to finish. This year is the moment to be able to stay within myself, go out, do what I need to do and capitalize.
SI: You dissected the 100-meter final and the other races from Beijing several times after the fact. Do you still think about those races?
JG: I haven’t thought about them too much recently—more for the 100. For that 200, I was tired. I’m not even going to lie, man. I was tired going into it and just gave it everything that I had. I know Usain’s favorite race is the 200, so he was going to get out and stretch his legs before the race. Now he’s talking about running 18 seconds, and I tip my hat off to him. I’m just going to try and hold on where I had to. To talk about those races was tough because it was one of the most devastating times of my career. I wanted to go out there and capture the moment, which is something I’ve done throughout my whole career. It made me a stronger athlete because now I know that when the moment comes, I have to seize it. One plan isn’t always going to work, so you have to have a contingency plan to back it up and make it happen.
SI: When was the first day back to practice?
JG: Some time in November.
SI: That’s a pretty long break after worlds ended in late August. What did you do?
JG: I just hung out with family. This was the year I wanted to be away from everything after the season. I worked so hard all year long and ran so fast on several occasions. I needed a break from track, the media and the world. I wanted to just be me.
SI: First real long break in a while? [Editor’s note: Gatlin served a four-year ban for track and field after testing positive for testosterone in 2006. He returned to competition in 2010.]
JG: Yeah, because I’ve always been hungry, hungry, hungry even in my fall when I was away, I was still hungry. I just needed time to be myself and gather myself to where I am at now slowly but surely. Now I’m back to where I am supposed to be.
SI: How much did you talk about goals for 2016 between that break and the first day of practice with coach Dennis Mitchell?
JG: We have our talks here and there. We discussed what exactly we needed to do, where we faltered and what flaws we need to fix. Each year it’s something different. There is no one plan that we use every year. We try to evolve to the point where we are smarter and stronger.
SI: How did the first day of practice this year feel in comparison to last year’s blazing start?
JG: That was the whole point last year. We came out of the gates swinging hard. We were emulating beating anyone and everyone that would step to the plate against us. This year is different with the Olympic Trials and history. I have to be ready and seize those moments. The world knows that I’m capable of running fast when I need to. Now I just need to time it right for when it counts the most.
SI: You’re off to a more conservative start to the season.
JG: Yeah. It’s also because I had a really bad ankle injury to start the season. I was jogging in the grass while on a warm-up and there was a sprinkler hole. I rolled my ankle, and it was really bad. It took me about four weeks to get that ankle right, and it’s still a little sticky. We’ve been monitoring it to maintain it and keep it strong.
SI: U.S. track star Sanya Richards-Ross announced that she would retire at the end of the season. At 34, this is likely your last Olympics. Have your own retirement thoughts started to creep up?
JG: I was talking to Carmelita [Jeter] and Sanya Richards-Ross before the [Penn Relays]. I haven’t looked at 2016 or 2017 being my last year. For now, I’m just going to focus on each season coming forward. I feel like once you start to tell yourself that it’s your last year, you kind of aren’t as sharp and lose some attention, drive and hunger. I don’t want to lose that yet. I want to get to the point where I accomplish my goals over the next couple years and then think, “O.K., this is it for me.”
SI: What do you think the sport will be like after Bolt?
JG: I think it will be fine. He’s done some amazing things, but there were also some people in the past that have done amazing things. Maurice [Greene] was one of the first to consistently run 9.7, Carl Lewis has his gold medals. We can go all the way back to Jesse Owens. Some remarkable men have done amazing things within the sport, but it’s always going to be more than an individual. I think the sport is going to be waiting and clamoring for the next sensation.
SI: How about American track without Gatlin? We got a little preview with Trayvon Bromell.
JG: I know Trayvon very well. We share a bond when it comes to believing in God and having that faith. He has a mentality where he’s not scared of anyone and willing to step up when he has to. The sprints side for the men is in good hands.
SI: There was a little bit of controversy that came up with coach Mitchell and being the relays coach for the Olympics. A lot of the blame goes on Mitchell for not being able to get the baton around the oval. What’s gone wrong?
JG: At the end of the day, you have to think that when the athletes are on the track, it’s a non-coachable moment. You can’t blame Dennis Mitchell that Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh dropped the baton at the world relays in the Bahamas last year or that the stick was a little tricky between Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers on the anchor leg. He puts the athletes in a position to be there. I think that we as athletes need to focus on ourselves. Over the last couple years, we’ve been prima donnas. Sometimes we only want to practice when we want to. Or we just want to do two hands-offs and be done. Coach Mitchell has unified us by pushing the egos to the side and unifying us under a common goal.
Coach Mitchell was on the American record-setting team that included Carl Lewis and LeRoy Burrell. They weren’t all the best of friends, but they knew that they needed to work together. When they did, they could make amazing things happen. That’s what Dennis Mitchell is going for.
SI: Training camp last year was in Monaco, which is filled with fun things to do. How did that trip remain a business trip and not just a party for a few days? What were the practices like?
JG: You have your own workouts to do, and everyone is watching you. You’re there having a good time, but you have to stay sharp and focus. You want to get out and have fun in Monte Carlo, but everyone manages to remain calm and works hard together. We don’t worry about other teams and our other countries. It was just about us.
The prep work is no different to when we sent our A-squad to the world relays. Jamaica also sent their A-squad. Look what happened. We came out with the victory.
At a world championship, we put too much pressure on ourselves and broke down because of the title of the event. We just have to go out there and just do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s in our backyard, the world relays, world championships or Olympics, we have to go out there and get things done in our own lane.
SI: Last year, you ran the 100, 200 and 4x100 at the world championships. Is that still the same focus for 2016 or will you elect to choose just one distance?
JG: I haven’t thought about it yet. It all depends on where I’ll be at. For now it’s sticking with the same plan of 100, 200 and relay. Last year was the first time that I had done that in a while, so it was a shock to my body to come out there and run the 200. It set me up this year to have a better season.
SI: TMZ is on you guys now. Trayvon was stopped in an airport. You chatted with them on Skype and declared that you would beat Usain. The level of trash talk hasn’t picked up yet to where it was last year.
JG: Last year was a campaign rally to go into the Olympics. At the end of the day, you want everyone to be excited about an event. I think it was a success because now everyone is looking forward to the event. You want to see all these athletes line up, have a dream 100 and be successful. Last year was to make excitement for this year. It wasn’t really about trash talk, but it’s about being confident. I train very hard. Trayvon trains very hard. Usain trains very hard. No one trains to get second or third. They train to be the best that they can be and hopefully that’s on top of the podium.
SI: Are you still confident you can beat Bolt?
JG: I beat him before. I beat him in Rome in 2013. There’s been a point where it happened, and I’m confident that I can put together the right race to make it happen.
SI: Closing ceremonies will be Aug. 21. It’s Bolt’s birthday at his last Olympics. Possibly your last Olympics. What would you say to him if you’re in the same room?
JG: I really don’t know. The world really doesn’t see how we are as human beings together. We’ve partied together, drank champagne and hung out at clubs together in Zurich and overseas. I have the utmost respect for him. At the end of the day, I’d like to bring the best athlete out of him because he does the same for me. I also want to win on top of that. It’s competition laced with respect. I love the person that he is. He knows that I’m going to come and fight. He knows if anyone’s going to push him to something great, it’ll be Justin.