SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Justin Gatlin knew exactly what he was up against in Christian Coleman.
"A mirror image," he said.
Both ran for the University of Tennessee. When Coleman completed the sweep this season of winning the NCAA 60- and 200-meters indoors and the 100 and 200 outdoors, he was the first to do it since Gatlin in 2002.
All of that was on Gatlin’s mind as he went to the call room at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships. So was the fact that Gatlin is 35 and Coleman is 21.
“It felt like I had to face a younger version of me,” Gatlin said, “a guy who’s hungry and he doesn’t want to lose. And he wants to be the best he can be.”
Coleman was in Lane 4, Gatlin in Lane 5, and they stayed side-by-side throughout the race, burning up the middle of the track. Gatlin’s experience came through at the end.
He leaned at the tape to win with a time of 9.95 seconds, with Coleman at 9.98 and Christopher Belcher third in 10.06. The national championships are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, and will be televised on NBC platforms.
Gatlin is the oldest men’s 100-meter champion as far as USA Track & Field can figure.
“It was a fighting moment,” Gatlin said, who last year was the oldest U.S. sprinter to reach the Olympic Games since 1912.
“It wasn’t the spectacular times you’ve seen me run the last couple of years, but it was a time where I needed to fight.”
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After breaking the tape, Gatlin decided it was a great keepsake. He wore a big grin as he carried it back down the straightaway to a standing ovation from the crowd.
“We were neck-and-neck the whole race,” Coleman said. “I just tried to stay smooth and stay composed throughout the race. He’s a veteran, so he knows how to handle those type of races and he got me at the line. It was a good race.”
Both qualify for the IAAF World Championship in London in August. This will be the fourth worlds for Gatlin, who won the 100 and 200 in Helsinki in 2005, then won silver medals in the 100 and the 4x100-meter in Moscow in 2013 and Beijing in 2015. He was also Olympic champion in the 100 in 2004 (plus the bronze medalist in the 200), the 100 silver medalist in 2016 and the 100 bronze medalist in 2012.
“It’s surreal,” Gatlin said. “To be honest with you guys, I know I’m in the twilight of my career. And today, listening to the announcer name all my accomplishments that I’ve done, I feel accomplished. So I think I’m balancing accomplishment and hunger and I’ve got to be able to find that hunger again. These guys are just starting their career off. I’ve got to make sure that I stay hungry and be able to say, ‘This is something I want to fight for.’"
His coach, Olympic gold medalist Dennis Mitchell, had the fighting words. “He said today, ‘If you are comfortable with what you have done with your career, at least give me these 9 seconds today.’ And it somehow just lit a fire under me. I was like, ‘If he wants these 9, I’m going to give him these 9.’”
He won’t need any motivation when it comes to an expected showdown with his old nemesis, Jamaican superstar Usain Bolt, who has won the 100 and the 200 at the last three Olympic Games.
Gatlin smiled. “It feels great. The sweet thing about it is you’re going to have two hungry guys who have no nervousness about them, and they’re hungry to go out there and make a name for themselves, so I feel like I’m getting ready. I’m suited up and I’m going to have an army behind me and we’re going to go out there and charge.”
He didn’t feel as confident early this season when he suffered a groin injury that moved to his left quad.
“I really just thought about being fluid,” Gatlin said. “The last couple of races I’ve had this season have not been fluid. I’ve had either a good start or had to run everyone down to have a good finish, and obviously, I’m getting fourth or fifth here and there.
“Mentally, I’m getting sharp again. Physically, my body’s catching up to where it needs to be."
He’s not sure if he will run the 200, which starts Saturday.
“I’m going to sleep on it tonight.”
Coleman transformed overnight from an orange-clad sprinter representing his college, the Tennessee Volunteers, to a Nike man. He signed a three-year deal, reportedly for seven figures.
Coleman said Gatlin has been a mentor to him. “He’s been in the same shoes as I am, coming through college and winning and turning professional. He’s definitely helped me a lot.”
The loss was Coleman’s first in a 100 since last year, when he raced Gatlin for the first time. In the semifinals at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field. Gatlin won that race with a time of 9.83 seconds while Coleman ran 9.95. In the final, Gatlin clocked 9.80 for the victory while Coleman came in sixth with a time of 10.06.
“So it wasn’t my first time (racing Gatlin),” Coleman said, “but it was my first time being that close.”
He said he lost his composure at the end of the race by reaching for the finish line and leaning forward. “I didn’t necessarily get off balance,” he said. “but you slow down when you start leaning.
“It’s something I’ve got to work on. Up until the finish line and the lean, it could have gone either way.”
The old man might disagree.