Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The U.S. men’s 4x100-meter track team won Team of the Month for October 2019 after winning the world title in American-record time at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar. In the team’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, team members Justin Gatlin and Mike Rodgers discuss how they were able to overcome a seemingly cursed history in the relays to deliver a dominant performance.
No one needed to tell Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin, Mike Rodgers or Noah Lyles about the U.S. men’s history in the 4x100-meter.
Everyone knew about the botched exchanges, the false starts, the disqualifications and the outright defeats. Heading into this year’s track and field world championships in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. men hadn’t won a title in the event since 2007 despite all the talent they’d had over the years.
They didn’t need to talk about it. Yet they still did.
The morning before the final, the sprinters had an athlete-only meeting.
“We put everything on the table,” said Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and a two-time world champion in the 100-meter. “We talked about our flaws and everyone else and what they could bring and how they could step up. Usually you would think that would make the air thicker or a little more tense, but it really lightened the air because it gave us all accountability. Like, ‘I messed up here, I could do better here,’ then like, ‘Alright. Let’s get the job done.’”
And they did.
Coleman, Gatlin, Rodgers and Lyles not only broke the curse that seemed to hang over the U.S. team the past decade but also shattered the American record in the process with a time of 37.10 seconds. The performance earned them the Best of October win for Team USA Awards presented by Dow.
“Finally. Finally,” Gatlin said of how he felt at the end of the race. “I’ve been on teams where you’re halfway around the track and something happens or there’s a false start or something crazy happens. To see Noah cross the line and us basically hold onto the lead from the gun and take it all the way around the track, it was a dominating feeling.”
For a moment, it seemed the U.S. might not even get the chance to run in the final. The team was in danger of disqualification in the preliminary heat on Friday night when Cravon Gillespie, a rookie at the world championships, was almost out of the exchange zone when he took the handoff from Rodgers. They finished third.
Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin, Michael Rodgers and Noah Lyles celebrate gold in the men's 4x100-meter relay at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Oct. 5, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
Rodgers attributed the close call to Gillespie’s lack of experience on the big stage and although he wasn’t worried that history was repeating itself—again—he said the runners also didn’t want to bring any negativity to the track for the final.
The meeting helped.
The rest of them were asleep, Rodgers said, when Coleman called the meeting.
“Christian didn’t like how the press was dragging us,” he said. “He went through every leg, what we needed to do, and he really stepped up as a leader, which is surprising for someone that young to call a meeting. We all voiced our opinions on what we needed to do, and we executed the plan perfectly. It was a small pinch of something to come at the Olympics.”
The final lineup was decided when the team first arrived in Doha, and by the time they were ready for the race Coleman, who was leading off, had won the world title in the 100-meter and Gatlin, running second, was the silver medalist. Lyles, who was anchoring, was the 200-meter world champion. For Rodgers, who usually led off or anchored, running the third leg was something new, he said, but the 2016 Olympian was ready.
The day of the race, Gatlin was battling a fever that had him wearing layers in the desert heat because he felt so cold. Yet after the gun sounded, the U.S. left the specters of the curse and everyone else in the dust. The start and exchanges were clean, and everyone was flying. Lyles sped across the finish line, thrust his arm in the air and the celebration began as Coleman was the first to meet him.
Immediately their thoughts were on what’s next, Gatlin said.
“When we crossed the line the first thing we said was, ‘We could run faster than this,’” Gatlin said. “We ran 37.1, one of the fastest times in history, and for us to say that I don’t think it was arrogance or being caught up in the hype, we just knew we could give a better effort. I think that we have something special and I hope in the future that we’ll be able to show everyone else, too.”
Seeing Lyles cross the line first was an incredible feeling, Rodgers said.
“Then I saw the time and I was like, ‘Oh, snap, that was fast,’” he said. “It’s going to be very exciting for Tokyo. I definitely can’t wait. I feel like everyone else is like, ‘The USA means business now, so how fast are they going to run?’ That’s the next big question. I think we can break the world record.”
For Gatlin, the gold medal is a highlight in a career that’s full of them. It was his first relay gold in nine cracks at the world championships and Olympic Games, and for a guy who says his spirit is rooted in the team, it was a proud moment.
“To be up there with three other guys who work very hard and have medals of their own from their events, it was a great end to a 2019 chapter,” Gatlin said. “It was like alright, we’ve got the gold, we finally broke the quote-unquote curse, now the sky’s the limit.”