Right as he was getting into the thick of his interview with REVOLT, Justin Gatlin was pulled over and approached by two police officers due to the darkness of the tint on his windows. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist handled the interaction with poise and grace – much like he has handled every hurdle he has encountered on and off the track. Gatlin came out the starting blocks blazing, literally and figuratively. After a stellar two seasons at the University of Tennessee, the then-20-year-old kid from Pensacola decided to take his career to the next level. Fresh off six NCAA titles, he decided to forego his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility and moved to North Carolina to train with Trevor Graham and Sprint Capitol.
“So, the relationship between an athlete and a coach; when you want to ascend to a great level and a connection, the athlete has to give himself to the coach. No matter what, you know as an athlete, no matter how you used to train and what you used to do good; you have to be able to clear that board, that white board, and allow that coach to be able to teach you the necessary skill sets to that next level. Right? So, I came in to Raleigh, like, not with the ego on my shoulders of, ‘Hey, you are a six-time NCAA champion. You the next up-and-coming, and you did it all yourself.’ I realized I had to humble myself and realize that there’s a cycle to this system. It’s like when you go from a freshman in high school and then you become a senior, you went through a whole bunch of transitions and phases. So, when I realized that, I said, ‘I’m just a freshman as a professional athlete. Now, I gotta learn as quickly as possible, and I gotta be hungry to be able to operate at a high, elite level. I gotta take everything in that’s being coached to me, and keep my eyes and ears open. I think that’s why I became very successful very early,” he explained.
Early indeed, as Justin Gatlin stormed to his first world indoor championship title in his first season as a professional. Less than two years in, he was the Olympic champion in the 100-meter dash in his first trip to the Games. Then, two years later came the storm. A lifetime ban, stemming from a positive test for testosterone, was reduced to four years. Although commuted, the sanction came at the pinnacle of Gatlin’s success. His then-world record of 9.77 seconds was wiped away, right along with any sense of routine or normalcy. The training group, which became close like family, was dismantled. Endorsements were snatched away. Blackballed by the sport that he loved so much, the hurdles that Gatlin saw staring him down were huge. Of his time away from the sport, he said it was a gift and a curse.
“The curse is, of course, being away from the sport, competing, running, earning money, having success, and having a career, making my dreams come true. But the gift of it was that it gave me clarity because I literally had to start at the bottom again. I started lower than when I started from college,” Gatlin told REVOLT. He found himself in the position of having to rebuild himself physically and mentally after being away from the sport for four years.
“The mentality was, ‘I’ve been at the top of the mountain. I know what it takes. I know the effort and I know the motivation I need.’ I know that I would have to be able to work to get back there mentally. It sounds easy. But physically it was extremely tough because I started back and I was already, let’s just say, 25 pounds overweight. I’m usually running and competing at 183 pounds, and I was already 210 pounds by the time I came back. I was definitely not in great shape at all, so I had to mentally sharpen myself to acquire more discipline and realize what my goal was in front of me, and nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter how far I had to drive to get to practice. It didn’t matter if I starved myself. I was going to eat correctly because it was my dream to get back on top and climb that mountain again. I would sacrifice everything to make that dream come true,” Gatlin said. The physical part was within his control, but it didn’t hurt to have someone to talk to as he navigated his way to redemption. He sat down with numerous professionals before settling on one that he felt could understand what he was going through.
“I remember sitting down with 11 doctors; one was a sports psychiatrist. I started telling him everything I was going through and then gave the chronological order of everything as it was happening. Telling him how I was feeling as those events transpired. I kid you not, his eyes became so big because he was in disbelief. Like, how could this one person go through all of this and still be here today?” he recalled. Not only is Gatlin “here today,” he managed to claw his way back to the top of his sport – defying Father Time. His 100-meter world championship titles are 12 years apart (2005 and 2017), and his 60-meter world indoor championship titles are nine years apart (2003 and 2012).
The road to redemption was peppered with heavy scrutiny in the court of public opinion. “You know, people looked at me as if they just seen a ghost like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he’s back.’ Then, my training partners saw how hard I worked and at that point in time, my name was still mud. The media was always on me, saying horrible things about me, and social media trolls were always talking trash about me, and my teammates never saw me come to practice, angry, upset, disgruntled. All they knew is that when I came, I came with good vibes, and I came to focus and get the job done, and I think they kind of respected me along that way because it was like they was like, ‘This dude is unflappable.’ Like, ‘You can say whatever you wanna say about this guy, but this guy works hard as s**t and doesn’t complain,’” the gold medalist continued.
Prior to retirement, he was the most seasoned sprinter in a training group that included a young up-and-coming sprinter by the name of Sha’Carri Richardson. Like Justin Gatlin, the former LSU athlete decided to forego her remaining collegiate eligibility after obliterating record books in her lone season as a Lady Tiger. She was poised to be the face of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games after becoming one of the 10 fastest women in history at the tender age of 19. After winning the U.S. Trials, Richardson tested positive for cannabis, invalidating her win and, consequently, her place on the U.S. Olympic team. She successfully completed a counseling program and was declared ineligible for a month starting in late June of 2021. She quickly went from darling to villain as any and everyone weighed in with their opinions. Her larger-than-life persona rubbed some the wrong way and every single move she made was looked at under a microscope. Having experienced the same pariah treatment, Gatlin leaned even further into the big brother role he had already taken in the eyes of his teammate.
“So, you know, it was a very emotional time for her, even if she doesn’t express it in that manner because this is something that you dream of as a kid. It’s something that you really take seriously. They think of themselves as becoming an Olympian and possibly winning a medal. It’s a moment you have been waiting for, have celebrated. I think that I helped her figure out that it’s not a sad moment, well it is a sad moment, but it’s not a moment you dwell on in sadness. You use that moment as motivation and inspiration,” Gatlin expressed. Motivated she is, as Richardson has dropped blazing times this season and seems well on her way to vindication.
However, there is another side of professional track and field stateside. While the U.S. national team has long been described as “the hardest team in the world to make,” it just doesn’t get the love or coverage it deserves outside of the Olympics. Richardson and Gatlin are part of a lucky few who don’t have to work outside of training.
“Let’s just say an average track and field camp can consist of one or two superstars that don’t have to work a 9 to 5, and they’re getting paid just to practice and just to compete. All their needs are taken care of. Then, you go down a little more, and then you have an athlete who’s making enough to be able to pay their apartment rent and maybe their car payment. Then, you have athletes who are making basically nothing — maybe they’re getting gear and they are hoping to get into track meets, so they can make some kind of money and pay for the necessities; they have to work another job to supplement. So the ones that don’t have a higher success ratio are the ones who are actually working harder and that’s sad because as a sport, it should never be like that. I’ve trained with athletes who lived in their car. They have lived in their car, and would be at practice, and get out the car, and all their belongings and their clothes will be in their trunk. They would change their clothes and they would go out to practice. Fortunately, that athlete went on to make the Olympic team and making that team was so precious to him. But that’s no monetary value,” he revealed.
Gatlin went on to say, “That’s a hard thing to stomach, I think, emotionally and mentally because you know that you’re worth something enough to be able to be one of the best in the world, and you have nothing financially to show for it.” As with anything, there is no quick fix. He described the efforts of improvement as more of a slow drip at this point.
The idea of no longer competing has frightened the athlete for years, so it is no surprise that he’s still managed to have his finger on the pulse of the sport. That is most evident in his mentorship of both young sprinters as well as athletes from other disciplines seeking to become faster and more explosive. While Justin Gatlin navigates this next season of life, expect him to continue to do so with the poise and grace that have made him “The Unflappable Gatin.”
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