EUGENE, Ore. — Justin Gatlin was up at 4 a.m.
Typically, he can’t sleep the night before big races, and Friday night, before he raced for one of the three 200-meter spots on the U.S. Olympic roster, was no different.
It would be only his third 200 race of 2016, his third 200 race over three days. Race 1 didn’t go great — he took second to Ameer Webb. Race 2 wasn’t that much better, either — he was second again, this time to 19-year-old phenom Michael Norman.
There was just something about this race that shook him awake.
So, there he was, picturing his first race from Lane 8 (often considered the worst lane in track) and talking himself down. His body was sore from injuries — ankles, quads. He had worn bandages on his quad through every round of races at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Gatlin, L. Merritt, Webb qualify in men’s 200m
Justin Gatlin, who ran the 200 in 19.75 seconds, will also race in the 100-meter final. LaShawn Merritt (19.79) also locked up a double after winning the 400 final earlier in the week.
Gatlin runs 9.80 to qualify for U.S. Olympic team
Justin Gatlin is on the road to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games after posting the fastest time of the year — 9.80 seconds — to win the U.S. Olympic trials in the 100-meter final.
Meet the sprinters who will lead Team USA in the 100 and 400
The U.S. men’s and women’s lineups for the 100- and 400-meter are set for the Rio de Janeiro Games. Get to know the sprinters who will look to bring home Olympic gold.
At 34, Gatlin is one of the oldest in the field and his body was certainly starting to feel that, his hair certainly starting to show some gray.
And then he told himself that he already had punched himself a ticket to Rio in the 100, winning in a world-leading time of 9.80. If he didn’t make it in the 200, he’d still get to represent his country at the Olympics.
“I said, ‘I can’t start thinking that way,’ ” Gatlin said. “That’s the beginning of a downfall, when you’re not going to really go out there and show your guts and show bravery. So I kind of just wanted to … go out here and act like I didn’t have my ticket punched and run as hard as I can to make sure I got on the team.”
He did just that, winning the race from Lane 8, adding another world-leading time and picking up his second victory of the trials.
As the eight runners came around the curve, it looked as though it was neck-and-neck, but out of the corner of Gatlin’s left eye, he said he saw the striding legs of LaShawn Merritt.
Memories of last summer’s IAAF World Championships, where Usain Bolt advanced and took advantage of some Gatlin hesitation, flashed back.
“I came off the curve in front and my eyes got big,” Gatlin said. “I just kept running as hard as I could.”
His coach’s final words of advice — “Get out and stay out” — also flashed through his head. Gatlin had gotten out of his blocks well, held the lead early, and then he just needed to close. And on the back straightaway at Hayward Field, just moments after 41-year-old Bernard Lagat won the 5,000 meters, Gatlin showed some veteran grit of his own, extending his lead and avoiding a repeat of Beijing.
Now, feeling healthy — even after six rounds of races at Hayward — Gatlin heads to Rio with the world’s fastest times in both distances. A feather in the cap for an American sprinting program in need of some medals, and an age group that typically begins to find itself pushed out by the younger faces in the crowd.
But those younger faces are only going to be excited to be able to say they were on the track with the greatest in America.
“Watching [Gatlin] on TV from home, I’m going to be like, ‘Wow, I raced him,’ ” Norman said. “Wow.”