In April of that year I first visited Gay to watch him train with start coach Jon Drummond at the University of Texas-Arlington. The date was April 22*. It's funny to read my notes from that day: "Broken overcast, light breeze, faded 8-lane running track around old-school AstroTurf field. Warm. Not Texas-hot.'' It's clear I thought this was going to the be first chapter in a memorable story, something I might recall while hacking away on deadline after Gay won the gold medal in Beijing. And it just wasn't.
*I just looked it up, digging through plastic bins full of spiral bound notebooks with Sports Illustrated mailing labels affixed to their covers and finding the one labeled "Tyson Gay 2008'' beneath the red SI logo.
It's not likely Gay felt himself reaching for historical significance, because a) he's just not wired liked that, and b) he was facing down a miserable 300-200-100 reverse ladder sprint series and thinking no further than finishing the last. But on that day -- April 22, 2008 -- there was every reason to think that we were about to see the best four months of Tyson Gay's life.
He had impressively won both the 100 and 200 at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka and his biggest competition, then-word record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica, (who had run 9.74 to Gay's PR of 9.84 at the time), had proven spectacularly fragile under championship pressure. Gay seemed to be getting better every year. After his workout that day (34.16 for 300, 21.01 for 200 and 10.24 for 100 meters), I went to TGI Friday's with Gay. I had a salad and he had a small plate of hot wings. He said he was thinking about running not only the 100, 200 and 4x100-meter relay in Beijing, but maybe even the 4x400 as well. All was good. Top of the world.
Eleven days later Usain Bolt happened. The then-21-year-old, 6-foot-5 Jamaican ran a stunning 9.76 for 100 meters at a meet in Kingston, Jamaica and made it look easy. Twenty-six days after that, he ran 9.72 on a muggy night at Icahn Stadium in New York, taking down Powell's world record. Gay was second in a very good 9.85 seconds and 9.85 never looked slower.
In the ensuing three months, Gay went to the U.S. Olympic Trials, ran very fast in the 100 meters and then injured his hamstring in the 200. He would not be the same for the rest of the year and did not contend for any Olympic medals. Bolt became an international superstar. He won the Olympic 100 gold medal in a world record 9.69, shutting down and celebrating. He won the Olympic 200 in 19.30, taking down Michael Johnson's seemingly unapproachable 19.32 while running into a headwind. Then he ran on Jamaica's world record, gold medal 4x100-meter relay.
And Bolt did all of this with style. He posed before races and danced after them. He was electric. This week, when Comcast/NBC Sports made its ultimately victorious television rights presentation to the International Olympic Committee, according to SI media writer Richard Deitsch, the network showed a "sizzle reel,'' of great Olympic moments. Bolt was on that reel. He has also done an ESPN SportsCenter commercial and become the default expression for speed in modern culture.
Gay went home to the U.S.A. and disappeared from mainstream media. He has not been back since.
Now, three years later, the approach to another Olympics has begun. On Wednesday Gay appeared at an Omega watch store (Omega is one of his primary sponsors) in midtown Manhattan in advance of his race Saturday in the 100 meters at the Adidas Grand Prix on Randalls Island (site of the Bolt beatdown in '08). When the appearance was finished, he climbed into an SUV for the snail's crawl through midday New York traffic back to his hotel. In many ways Gay, now 29, is the same Gay he's always been: An unassuming, religious guy from Kentucky who was once miserable traveling around Europe because he didn't have Slingbox yet. (He and Bolt could not be more different in this regard: They are silence and noise, side-by-side).
But in another way, he's very different, too. And he has been since that day three years ago when Bolt flipped a switch and transformed himself from a lanky sprig of potential, too mellow to really care, into the nastiest force in sprinting history.
Here in traffic, Gay is remembering that summer of 2008. Even as Bolt was exploding, Gay was seriously sharp. In Eugene at the U.S. Trials, he ran a legal PR of 9.77 and a wind-aided 9.68. Then he went down in the 200 with a nasty injury to his left hamstring. Maybe 2008 would have been entirely different if Gay had stayed uninjured.
"I do wonder about that,'' says Gay. "But I also don't wonder. My mindframe about the 100 meters completely changed when Usain Bolt ran 9.72 and beat me in New York. Regardless of how he figured it out, or how long it took him, that meant I was going to have to run 9.6s to beat him. So that's what I started thinking. I've got to run 9.6s. I think I was in 9.6 shape in Eugene before I got hurt. But it doesn't matter, because I did get hurt. And Usain Bolt could have run 9.5-something* in Beijing if he wanted to.''
*Ato Boldon, the multiple Olympic sprint medalist who does incisive track analysis for NBC, says, "Nobody was beating Usain Bolt in Beijing. Now if Tyson had stayed healthy, Bolt would not have been celebrating at 80 meters, because the race would have been closer.''
What happened in the slipstream of that race -- and those Olympics -- is that the public summarily awarded Bolt every World Championship and Olympic medal for the next 8 years, minimum. After all, he was only 22 and seemed to have redefined his event.
Gay, however, makes his living running fast. He had been pushed from the stage after a brief appearance -- only room for one Alpha Dog in sprinting -- and now had reset his career goals. But he had suddenly become Patrick Ewing playing in Michael Jordan's era. "We don't talk about Bolt every day at practice,'' says Gay's longtime coach, Lance Braumann, "but I'm sure Tyson thinks about him.''
"Every day,'' says Boldon, "It's like he's training against the ghost of Usain Bolt. That ghost is always there.'' (Gay's agent, Mark Wetmore, however, says that Bolt's emergence -- dominance -- has not hurt Gay economically. "If anything,'' Wetmore says, "it's helped. Because it's brought attention to the sport, and their event.'' Of course, it's almost impossible to arrange head-to-head races, because few meets -- most are struggling financially -- can afford to pay appearance fees to both Bolt and Gay.)
Two things are true in the three years since Bolt usurped Gay. One, Bolt has gotten better, but not recently. There are probably reasons for that, because at 24, it's unlikely Bolt is finished. Two, Gay has not packed up his spikes. At the Berlin worlds in 2009, Bolt lowered both of his world records, the 100 to 9.58 and the 200 to 19.19 (again, into a headwind). But in the 100, Gay ran a personal best and American record 9.71.
A month later in Shanghai, Gay ran down Powell and took the AR down to 9.69. A long way from Bolt, but still, only two men have run faster than 9.70. Last year Bolt struggled with a back injury and Gay beat him in their only head-to-head meeting. This year Bolt has won two 100s in pedestrian 9.91s and won a rainy 200 last night in Oslo in 19.86, clearly not in top form. Yet. (Big word there). Gay, meanwhile, ran 9.79 in a "meet'' last week that was basically a public training session at his training base in Clermont, Fla.
Gay did this despite a right hip issue that has nagged him since February and caused Braumann to temper Gay's training. Despite the injury, he's clearly in fabulous shape (in March, Gay ran 32.2 seconds for 300 meters in training flats, a spectacular time). On May 16, Gay ran 14.51 seconds for the quirky distance of 150 meters in Manchester, England, .16 off Bolt's world record. "Other than the hip issues, he's in great shape,'' says Braumann.
Gay is prone to injuries because he trains exceptionally hard all the time and often races from behind, giving him little opportunity to relax. Gay recalls that sprint coach (not his) John Smith used to call him "One Speed,'' and advised him to save some of his effort for races and not leave it all on the track in workouts. "I'd always be out there smashin','' says Gay. "Now I'm trying to be smarter about that.'' That's not always easy in a training group that includes five sub-10-second 100-meter runners, as Gay's does. They call the 28-year-old Gay "old man.''
It is a long season, and just two meets really matter: The USA Track and Field Nationals in Eugene on the last weekend in June and the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea at the end of August. Everything else is just a form of preparation. Bolt is going to run substantially faster than 9.91 and 19.87, but there's little doubt his preparation was slowed by last summer's injury (top sprinters begin base training in October). Gay is healing, but he's already unlikely to run the 200 meters at USA Nationals.
So it comes down for this year to beating Bolt at 100 meters. Does that mean Gay has to run faster than 9.58? Not necessarily. Bolt might never run that fast again. (Boldon recalls, "After Michael ran 19.32, we all got discouraged because we figured we won't run 19.32. My coach (Smith) said 'Neither will he.'''). But Gay figures he needs a better race than he's ever run.
``It really has to be a perfect race,'' he said this week. ``I need a good reaction, my first 10 steps to be really wide open, real big, open strides, gradually come up cleanly out of the drive phase, keep high knees all the way with good stride frequency and good body position.'' (I asked Gay if his 9.69 in 2009 was a perfect race: "No,'' he said. "It was terrible. I basically popped straight up out of the blocks and then ran for my life.'').
They will not race this year until the World Championships, provided both get there healthy. Maybe that's not ideal for the sport of track and field. But suppose Gay had run in Oslo yesterday and beaten Bolt. Would that victory have made the ESPN crawl? Would it have resonated beyond the insular world of track fans? "He's the world record holder, the Olympic champion and the world champion,'' says Gay. "At the end of the day, I can't just beat him in some race. I have to beat him on the big stage.''
Just in case, I've got a new notebook going. Bright sunshine, bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cabs everywhere. Gay checking his Twitter between questions....