BIRMINGHAM, England -- He was there every morning at breakfast, usually sitting quietly in a corner of the hotel restaurant, unobtrusively -- and bravely, it must be said, given the offerings -- working his way through various plates of food. A few miles away in a giant stadium set among the hills outside Daegu, South Korea, sprinters would run in the 2011 world track and field championships.
Four years earlier Tyson Gay of the United States was among those sprinters. He won both the 100 meters and 200 meters at worlds in Osaka, Japan and stood atop the world of track and field.
That was before Usain Bolt became
So at breakfast in Daegu, Gay was wearing flip-flops instead of adidas spikes, making small talk with journalists and sponsors, chilling so much that a visitor to his table was tempted to throw a blanket onto his lap. Over the course of the championships, Gay watched as Bolt false started out of the 100 meters, opening the door to Yohan Blake's first global championship. Then, five days later, Gay watched as Bolt returned to win the 200 meters, adding a layer of intrigue to Jamaica's world sprint dominance.
Nearly a year had passed since those championships when Gay sat Wednesday morning at another table -- not far from the breakfast room, if you're into symmetry -- in another hotel at the U.S. Olympic track and field team's training camp 125 miles northwest of London. He wore his USA Track & Field Skullcandy headphones and a grey cotton t-shirt over floppy sweats. More importantly, he carried a small backpack that contained racing spikes. "Last year in Daegu, man, being on the other side," he said. "That was tough."
It's been the longest year of Gay's career, which dates back to the late 1990s, when he was a three-time Kentucky state champion. It meanders through a community college in Kansas, which he attended before heading to the University of Arkansas and winning the 2004 NCAA 100-meter championships. Now, he has a deep professional resume as the second-fastest 100-meter runner (and fifth-fastest 200-meter runner) in history.
However, there is no Olympic medal among his many decorations, and at the age of 30, there's precious little opportunity remaining. He looks around the hotel lobby in Birmingham and catalogs his place on the timeline. "A lot of new faces," he says. "A lot of guys younger than me.'" He will run the 100 meters in London against a stellar field that is almost certain to include the four fastest men in history (Bolt, Gay, Asafa Powell and Blake) and five of the eight fastest (with American Justin Gatlin at No. 8).
Yet it is remarkable that he is here at all. The recovery from his hip surgery was laborious; Gay finished second at he U.S. Trials after just six weeks of serious training. "When I got here [to Birmingham], I looked around and I was really happy to be here with the team," said Gay. "But I was thinking: people have no idea what I've been through."
It's true that every world-class sprinter subjects his body to enormous stress with every race and every practice. But even within that small subset, Gay is exceptionally powerful. Ralph Mann, a former world class hurdler who is now USATF's chief sprint and hurdle biomechanist, recalls that roughly six years ago, the organization did a broad physiological and biomechanical study of top-level athletes.
"They were all exceptional athletes," says Mann, who was in Birmingham doing video analysis with U.S. athletes. "But Tyson was right there in the top five among all the athletes."
As late as April this year, Gay was barely sprinting. In June, just before the U.S. Trials in Eugene, he said that he awoke most mornings with pain in his surgically repaired hip, and he came to the Trials with less than two months of heavy training, when a normal sprint season would begin with weight work as far as October of the previous autumn. This continued a pattern that has persisted for several years, as Gay tries to hold his body together. "We're using duct tape and spit [on Gay]," said Mann in early July. "We wind him up and hold our breath and hope he doesn't break."
Yet Gay made the Olympic team in Eugene, finishing second behind Justin Gatlin (who also has not head a linear path, having returned two years earlier from a four-year doping suspension). After Eugene, Gay won two international races, with a 9.99 in Paris (in which he beat Gatlin) and a 10.03 into a headwind in London.
And this Wednesday morning, after Gay ripped through a series of 30-meter accelerations on the Alexander Stadium track in Birmingham, Mann said, "He's light years ahead of where he was six weeks ago. Light years."
Gay understands the hand he's been dealt, physiologically. "My body feels what I've been doing for my whole career," he says. "I have to train smarter now." After his race in Monaco, he went to Munich for treatment from Dr. Hans-Mueller Wohlfahrt, the same man who has been treating Bolt's tight hamstrings and dodgy lower back. He did indoor workouts with his coach, John Drummond. "My hip feels better than it did in Eugene," says Gay. "My whole body feels better." He seems to walk with a slight limp, but attributes that to a sore groin that has bothered him for many years.
He talked about the injuries reluctantly now, because for the first time in nearly a year, his eyes are trained on a starting line. "I'm nervous, I'm anxious," says Gay. "There's a lot of good people in the race, and there are only three medals and only one medal that really, really, really, really counts."
Can the Jamaicans be beaten? "I mean, they can," says Gay. "But I've got to run well to do it."
He will probably have to run faster than he's run in three years, since his American record of 9.69 seconds in the late summer 2009, after Bolt had taken over the world of sprinting. It is much to ask of a body healed and then hurried into form against a ticking clock, but the Olympic Games come infrequently and capriciously.
Five years ago in Osaka Gay was the king. Then there was an injury and the human explosion of Usain Bolt. "I'm thinking this is it for me with the Olympics," says Gay. "I'm not even thinking beyond right now."