Gatlin, Felix take different paths to same result: a berth in Rio Games

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EUGENE, Ore. — There was a time, more than a decade ago, when Justin Gatlin and Allyson Felix were the fresh, unsullied faces of American track and field. Circa 2005, during a cold and rainy world championships in Helsinki, Finland, Felix won the first of her three world championships in the 200 meters and Gatlin followed his Olympic 100-meter gold medal in 2004 with victories in the 100 and 200 meters. They both smiled and said all the right things and sent the sport into a future where maybe nobody would talk about dismissed dopers Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery anymore. Gatlin was 23 years old and Felix was 19. They were friends, and they were the future.

It is an essential chapter in modern U.S. track and field history that shortly after that moment in a faraway place, their careers went in very different directions. Felix went on to become one of the most decorated U.S. female track and field athletes in history, with a total of 19 Olympic and world championship medals, including the individual gold medal in the 200 meters at the London Olympics in 2012. She is as respected for the dignity with which she carries herself as for the speed with which she runs.

Gatlin, meanwhile, was busted for doping in 2006 and suspended for four years. He returned to the sport in 2010 and has run faster than ever, and concurrently gained worldwide status as track and field’s resident boogeyman, these days the second proper noun—after “Russia”—in any published treatment of the sport’s pharmaceutical underbelly. He is frequently and conveniently held up as the symbol of everything in need of change in the sport (lifetime drug bans, flogging in the public square, that sort of thing), vermin that must be exterminated before the house can be safely occupied.

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In short, the narratives surrounding Felix and Gatlin, once overlapping, could not be more different. Nevertheless, this being track and field, where the strange and discomforting is routine, they remain on the track together. And they remain among the most significant and intriguing characters in the sport.

Late Sunday evening, here at Hayward Field on the third day of the U.S. Olympic Trials, Felix qualified for her fourth Olympic team with a victory in the 400 meters, the first of her two events here—the other is the 200—in pursuit of an Olympic double that has been achieved by just two women in history. Three months ago, that sentence seemed preordained, the prelude to a run at rare history. As it played out in real time, it was one of the most stunning and unexpected performances of Felix’s long career. After missing a month of important training with a severe ankle injury, Felix staggered through a first-round heat and a semifinal in Eugene and fell to fifth place in Sunday’s final, before rolling down the homestretch to victory in 49.68 seconds, the third-fastest time of her career and fastest in the world in 2016.

“It was different from any meet I’ve ever had,” said Felix. “I’m not even sure what I can compare it to. I really can’t even put into words.”

Gatlin, meanwhile, rolled to victory in 100 meters for the second time in his career. It was not unexpected or stunning, but it was very impressive. His winning time of 9.80 seconds is the fastest time in the world in 2016 and by far the fastest time ever run by any 34-year-old man. Gatlin celebrated by waving a small American flag, and was embraced by an adoring Hayward crowd. Elsewhere on the planet, where people scrutinize this sport, surely there was dismay. The boogeyman lives on.

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After Felix, 30, followed her 2012 Olympic gold with a world championship in the 400 last summer in Beijing, she and her longtime coach, Bobby Kersee, decided to pursue an Olympic double (which will be particularly daunting, with the emergence of young sprinters Dafne Schippers and Elaine Thompson is the 200, but that is not an issue for the present). Training for the double was proceeding well. When I interviewed Felix in early April in Los Angeles, she described a recent day’s training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., that went as follows: 24X100 meters in the morning, followed by a 500-meter time trial in the evening and then 9X200 meters with 90 seconds’ rest between the sessions. This was a crushing workout, almost like something a middle distance runner would do. “We were doing the hardest workouts I’ve ever done,” says Felix. “Volume, but also sprinting.”

At the time, Felix said, “Lord willing, I’ll train through some meets, make the team and get ready for Rio.”

Lord wasn’t, strictly speaking, willing. In mid-April, Felix finished a set of pull-ups with a large medicine ball clutched between her knees (to make the pull-ups more difficult) and then dropped to the floor with the intention of missing the ball. Instead, her right ankle landed on the ball and rolled. She thought the ankle was broken and instantly imagined that the Olympics were lost. “This was going to be a big year,” Felix says. “And I’ve never had anything like that happen. It was scary.”

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She wouldn’t return to the track for a month, during which she underwent extensive physical therapy at a clinic in Santa Monica, Calif., and was doted upon by Kersee, his famous wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and other family members and friends. She did water workouts and spent hours on a spinning bike, doing interval work to mimic track training. “It didn’t make me want to become a cyclist,” she said. But it allowed her retain the baseline fitness built in 15 years of training and in those monster sessions in Chula Vista. The body doesn’t forget fitness, but it can forget how to race.

Felix and Kersee went back to Chula Visa 25 days before her first race at the Trials and put in three weeks of desperate, catch-up training. Still, she was short of fitness and way short on racing, and she knew it. On Friday, she limped through her first-round heat in 51.96 seconds. On Saturday, she qualified for the final in 50.31 seconds, just behind Francena McCorory. It was a grind, and Felix came to the media mixed zone 20 minutes after the race, still breathing hard. “I just haven’t raced,” she said. The body needs reminding of what that pain feels like.

“But that race felt better,” Felix would say after the final. Slowly it was coming back.

She sought confidence around her family and friends, and it did not come easily. “I’ve haven’t seen her like this before,” said Felix’s older brother, Wes, who is Allyson’s manager and has been by her side throughout her career. “It was tough, she was up and down.”

Felix warmed up Sunday afternoon on the pale red track adjacent to the Hayward north seats. Kersee saw something. As Felix gathered her spikes and began walking to the track, Kersee said, “Forty-nine seven.” It seemed absurd, given the events of the previous two months—“There was a time when I couldn’t even walk,” said Felix—and previous two days. “I don’t know what he saw,” says Wes Felix. “But he was right on it.”

In the final, Felix was left behind in the first 200, in particular by Natasha Hastings, one lane outside Felix, and McCorory, one lane inside. Felix began to move on the final turn, and it was not a time for technical running. This was desperation, a little kid on the street, chasing a rolling ball. “I was just trying my best to make the team,” says Felix. “I didn’t know anything else.” She crossed the line, threw her arms in air, and then fell to the track, the type of emotion she saves for her most meaningful performances among many good ones.

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Qualifying for the 200 meters begins in five days. That’s five more days to heal, five more days to recover. The double is very much alive.

If Felix’s battle is physical, Gatlin’s is mental. Among the many complexities in his very long career is the misfortune to have been born in the same athletic generation as Usain Bolt.

It is for this reason that 2015 was the most significant year of Gatlin’s career. At age 33, he ran 100 meters in 9.74 seconds, the fastest time in the world, fastest of his life and third-fastest by any U.S. sprinter (Tyson Gay, who also has been banned for doping, has twice run faster at his peak, in 2009), But because of Gatlin’s rap sheet, because of fresh research suggesting that steroid use might produce positive benefits for many years after cessation, because Bolt is not only justly beloved, but also seen as the paragon of clean sport (sure, why not?) and because sports love to suck the subtlety out of a narrative, their race in Beijing was described by some simple-minded purists as a battle for the soul of the sport, which was, as I wrote last August, a lot to ask of a footrace.

Bolt had been absent or unremarkable for most of the season, while battling injuries (this might sound familiar), but ran his best race of the year in the championship race (as he is often does, which is one of many reasons why he’s awesome), while Gatlin ran his worst. Famously (or infamously, if you are a thinking human), BBC broadcaster and former mile world record holder Steve Cram screamed into his microphone, “Bolt has saved his title, he’s saved his reputation, he may have even saved his sport!” By the way, 11 months later, how is that working out?

Like it or not—and he most definitely doesn’t like it—Gatlin will take his doping ban and black-hat reputation to his grave. He will take other things, too: A 2004 Olympic gold medal, a genuinely sweet personality and the respect of his peers, doping ban notwithstanding. “Gatlin,” said Bolt, when I interviewed him in May. “I have a lot of respect for that guy.” He will take memories of the early and mid-2000s when he was as popular and benign as Felix.

But the Beijing race represented something else for Gatlin. It was chance to beat Bolt before the window seemingly closed on his own physical abilities (long-term steroid effects or not). And make no mistake, Gatlin’s race that night was every bit as bad as Bolt’s was good. Gatlin has the proper race shape to beat Bolt; he is an explosive and consistent starter, which will give him a lead over Bolt. And he generally does not collapse in the middle of a race, which is exactly when Bolt’s acceleration tears apart the field.

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That night in Beijing, Gatlin fell apart. His form began to crumble at 60 meters as Bolt appeared on his flank and completely broke down in the final 15 meters, his textbook form dissolving into a halting stagger. Analysis from track insiders was swift and damning: Gatlin was beaten because he couldn’t emotionally deal with weight of taking down Bolt. “Gatlin folded,” said four-time Olympic medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon. “He couldn’t convince himself that he could beat Bolt, so he couldn’t.”

Gatlin has had nearly a year to carry that defeat around with him, to let in marinate in his brain and in his sprinter’s soul. His default answer has been every sprinter’s default answer: “I just didn’t executive my race.’’

But when I talked to Gatlin this week in Eugene, he was slowly accepting that he was, indeed, unprepared to take down the king. “When have you ever seen me get run down from behind?” Gatlin asked me. I allowed that I had not seen it happen. But also that perhaps it was the moment that seized him. Gatlin said, “I had a lot of things on my mind, a lot of emotions. I was thinking about everything that I’ve been through, and here I am with a chance to win this race.”

And then, there was Bolt, alongside, those shoulders humping up and down, those legs churning. “I know what I need to do when I see someone coming,” said Gatlin. “But this is Usain Bolt. Now I know with Bolt, you need a Plan B. I didn’t have a Plan B.”

And it’s possible his window has not closed. Bolt was running well this year and seemed poised to remain healthy for a full Olympic season, but on Friday night he withdrew from the 100 meters at the Jamaican Olympic Trials with a Grade 1 tear of his left hamstring. Bolt’s agent, Ricky Simms, was in Eugene on Sunday (he represents Trayvon Bromell, who made the U.S. team behind Gatlin), and said that Bolt’s sore hamstring is the same injury that often plagues him: Low back issues that lead to hamstring weakness and pain. It first presented this year during Bolt’s season-opening race in the Cayman Islands and was exacerbated by a long wait in the pre-race call room before last Thursday’s first-round heat in Kingston.

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Bolt will travel soon to Germany and get treatment—as he has often in the past—from Dr. Hans Muller Wohlfahrt, who has become as much a part of Bolt’s history as his victory poses. Bolt is expected to be named to the Jamaican team this week. “If he’s not named,” said Simms. “Jamaica will go crazy.” This is probably true.

This sets up a scenario where Gatlin’s body and mind will be tested again. His victory on Sunday was fast. Before the Trials, he had run only 9.90 seconds with legal winds, suggesting that perhaps age (or something) was catching him. Running 9.80 suggests otherwise. The race was ragged, and Gatlin stumbled slightly reaching the line, similar to his breakdown in Beijing, but less pronounced. “I’ve been having some issues with my left quad and some other things,” said Gatlin. “So I tried to shut it down near the end.”

Like Felix, he will run another race, the 200 meters that begins on Thursday, and in which he is a heavy favorite. His return to the Olympics will inflame the conversation at a time when the sport in ensnared in multiple doping issues. He will be singled out again and the world will root against him as much it cheers for Felix. They walk very different paths to the same place.

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