DES MOINES, Iowa — It was supposed to be a 100-meter showdown between the five-time Olympic medalist and the fastest guy so far this year – and between the 2017 world gold and silver medalists.
But on a warm, windy evening on Drake University’s famed blue track, the veteran — Justin Gatlin — withdrew from the 100 final at the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, and the “new guy,” 23-year-old Christian Coleman, cruised to his first national title in 9.99 seconds.
“If you look at the lineage of U.S. sprinters, look back through the years and see who won each year, it’s legendary guys,” said a subdued Coleman, listing men like Gatlin, American record holder Tyson Gay and multiple-time Olympic gold medalists Maurice Greene and Carl Lewis. “To be among that group of guys is an honor and a blessing. I don’t take it lightly.”
“I’m excited to get that first [national title] under my belt,” Coleman added. “Hopefully, there’s many more in the future.”
As the reigning world champion, Gatlin, 37, has a bye to the 2019 world championships. He ran the semifinal earlier in the evening, finishing third in 10.16 to Coleman’s 9.96, then withdrew.
Asked if he was disappointed not to race Gatlin in the final, Coleman laughed, then said not really.
“I just wanted to make the [world championship] team no matter who was on the line,” he added.
Now Coleman has a chance to win his first world title in the 100. At the 2017 world championships, he finished second to Gatlin’s win. Notably, both men beat Usain Bolt.
Although Coleman may run as fast as Bolt, he is not the same showman. Talking to reporters after winning his first national title, Coleman seemed remarkably unemotional. When asked if he was happier inside, he pointed out that the mission is not over yet.
“I came into the year, I wanted to win a gold medal in Doha, and this is just a step that I had to do to get there,” he replied. “That’s what I focused in on every single day, gotta attack every practice, gotta attack every workout. Even off the track, I have to attack things in the training room to be prepared to make it there and get a gold medal.”
Joining him in the gold-medal race at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar, in late September will be Michael Rodgers, who finished second in 10.12, and Christopher Belcher who crossed the line a hair behind Rodgers, sharing 10.12. And also Gatlin.
Coleman, who is also racing the 200 here at the outdoor championships, has been the man to beat this season in the 100. He set a world-leading 9.81 at the Prefontaine Classic on June 30, beating Gatlin en route to the win. It was the first time Coleman had beaten Gatlin in the 100.
Then Gatlin clocked a 9.91 at the Diamond League meet in Monaco on June 12 — notably beating sprinting sensation Noah Lyles in that race (afterwards, Lyles decided to focus on only the 200 at nationals).
It looked like the 100 final would be a drag race between Coleman and Gatlin. But Coleman easily cruised to victory.
Coleman’s goal is now to win his first world title — and officially be the fastest man in the world. But at the moment, it’s a comparison that the media is focused on more than Coleman. For the young sprinter, it’s all about training.
“I just treat everybody the same,” he said, “and keep grinding, keep working and try to officially be the fastest man in the world come the end of September in Doha.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.