Gatlin emerging from coach’s shadow

That burst out of the blocks by Justin Gatlin? Graham helped build it. That effortless stride, Graham played a role in crafting it.

But that was years ago, back when the Americans dominated track’s glamorous sprints, and Graham led the charge with a squad of world-class athletes that included Gatlin, Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

Then doping scandals wrecked them all, erasing their world records and sullying their reputations. Graham was banned for life.

These days, he doesn’t pay close attention to track, and some of the keepsakes in his office, well, they’re simply gathering dust. Those mementos include the jersey Gatlin wore when he captured gold at the 2004 Athens Games and a pair of bronzed shoes from Jones’ five-medal performance at the 2000 Sydney Olympics — medals she relinquished.

“That was our time. That was our moment back then,” Graham said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Raleigh, N.C. “Now, it’s over with. It’s time to move on.” Gatlin has.

This month, the 29-year-old sprinter will race in the 100 meters at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. It will be his biggest race since returning to the sport after a four-year ban for doping that wiped out his record time of 9.77 seconds.

Yet no matter how fast Gatlin runs, he realizes this: The shadow of Graham will still trail him around the track.

That’s why Gatlin has severed all ties. He simply can’t maintain a relationship with the tainted coach.

Not now. Not with his Olympic goal so close.

“The relationship we had when I was growing up, I can’t take that away from him. He showed me what it takes to be a professional athlete, psychologically,” Gatlin said. “It’s better not to have a relationship. It definitely wouldn’t do anything for me at this time.

“But I’ve always wondered if he still watches.He does.

When Graham tuned in for the U.S. championships in June, he couldn’t help but dissect Gatlin’s every stride as he finished second behind Walter Dix, one-hundredth of a second away from victory.

“Kind of made some slight mistakes”. If [Gatlin] corrects those mistakes, he would’ve ran 9.8,” said Graham, who turns 48 later this month. “That’s what I saw. That’s the type of race he ran.”

After crossing the finish line, Gatlin screamed in exultation, his booming bellow releasing the pent-up fury of years spent on the side-line. Moments later, he bent at the waist, hands on his knees, and sobbed.

Nearly 3,000 miles away, Graham, never one to show much emotion, did a little fist pump and grinned. Then he turned off the TV, poured himself a glass of red wine and sauntered out back to savour the moment.

“What I see is a kid with a whole lot of talent,” said Graham, a member of the Jamaican team that won silver in the 1,600 relay at the ’88 Summer Olympics. “For a guy to sit out for four years and come back and break sub-10, that should tell you how talented he is.

“Shows that he didn’t need performance-enhancing drugs that he wasn’t doing the type of things people claimed he was doing.”

Not all that long ago, Gatlin, not Usain Bolt, was the talk of track.

The former University of Tennessee star was one of the fastest men on the planet, tying the 100-meter record in a run that came weeks after a positive test in April 2006 for excessive testosterone. To this day, Gatlin insists the positive test was caused when a massage therapist rubbed a testosterone-like cream onto his legs.

“At the end of the day, I’m at fault for what goes into my body. That’s what the rules say,” Gatlin said. “I’ve always abided by the rules, and I feel like I have to make sure nothing happens to me again.”

Now Gatlin works with veteran coach Brooks Johnson on a sun-baked track near Walt Disney World in Florida, hanging on every word. “Brooks has definitely been a savior in my life,” Gatlin said.

Together, they’re hatching a plan to close the gap on Bolt — a mission Gatlin shares with every other sprinter in the world. Bolt has set the bar quite high, lowering the world record to 9.58 seconds with his electric run in Berlin two summers ago.

Graham believes his former disciple can catch Bolt, who’s also the world-record holder in the 200 (19.19).

“It’s not like you’re taking someone who hasn’t been there before. [Gatlin] has been world champion, Olympic champion,” said Graham, who coached Gatlin when he won Olympic gold in 2004. “He has been there before. So it’s not impossible at all.”

Graham says a return to coaching isn’t far-fetched for him, either, even though he cannot set foot in any USOC facility.

“Can he sit in his house and teach a kid how to come out of the blocks? Sure,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “But obviously we would discourage any athlete.

“He’s got a lifetime ban. That’s there for a reason, in part, because he refuses to be candid and truthful about the facts and the situation. He’s failed to accept responsibility.”

Graham insists he has “nothing to hide” and says he still receives phone calls from up-and-coming sprinters. But he’s holding out for the ideal fit — the next Justin Gatlin.

“If that individual comes along, I wouldn’t turn my back on him,” Graham said. “If a kid comes to me today and was willing to work, I’d definitely work with that kid, try to win a gold medal for the United States. Maybe I’ll do that. Maybe you’ll see me at the trials next year.”


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