Gatlin getting back in groove after 4-year ban

Feb. 24, 2012, 1:43 p.m. (ET)

The Justin Gatlin who tore down the track last season was more concerned with fitting in than standing out.

Once among the fastest men on the planet, Gatlin kept a rather low and modest profile as he eased his way back into the world of sprinting after a four-year doping ban.

Don't make waves. Be polite. Flash the fans a gracious - and contrite - grin as he worked his way back up to speed.

Now, that easygoing demeanor has taken a back seat to his competitive nature.

With the 2012 London Games right around the corner, it's show time.

And Gatlin's quite eager to stand out once again - just like he did at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when he surged by the 100-meter field to capture gold.

“Just watch. You'll see a more focused Justin this season. A more determined Justin. A Justin that's out there to take names,” said Gatlin, who's competing at the U.S. indoor championships this weekend in Albuquerque, N.M. “I ran off bravery last season, just wanting to simply compete. This year, it's going to be to show a different kind of Justin.”

In his darkest hours, Gatlin never believed this moment was possible.

Suspended for four years in 2006 after testing positive for excessive testosterone, he figured there was no way he would ever compete for another spot in the Olympics.

Too much time was lost. His prime years, at that.

At 30 years old, an age when most sprinters are more likely to retire than ramp up, he actually feels stronger than ever.

His legs, by his calculation, are just 25 - since he missed so much time because of the ban - and his training is going well, even more so now that he's learned to curb his craving for cheeseburgers.

Gatlin's weighing in at a chiseled 189 pounds these days and said he's primed to run around 9.8 seconds in the 100, a very solid mark considering his fastest time ever was 9.85 in Athens nearly eight years ago.

Once, he ran even faster, tying the world record with a time of 9.77 seconds. But it came weeks after his positive test in April 2006 and has since been erased from the books.

Even that time won't cut it in this age of Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt, who's drastically altered the sprint game as he's lowered the world record to a blistering 9.58 seconds.

Gatlin's mind isn't focused on Bolt, only himself. Beating Bolt is a challenge for another time. There's still too much work to do, including securing a spot on the Olympic squad this June in Eugene, Ore.

He considers himself a dark horse at the trials, even though he finished second at U.S. championships last summer. But with Tyson Gay on the mend from hip surgery, Walter Dix fresh off a double-silver performance at worlds last summer and a host of newcomers in the pipeline, anxious to make their mark, a ticket to London is going to be awfully hard to procure.

“I think that people are looking at me and noticing what I'm doing. But at the same time, they don't think that I'm capable of dominating again,” said Gatlin, who made it to the semifinals at worlds last August despite frostbite on both feet, the result of leaving wet socks on as he cooled down in a cryogenic chamber. “I want to make sure that people out there - the world, my competitors - that they know I'm a dominating force as well.”

Even after a full season back on the track scene - his first since being reinstated from his ban on July 24, 2010 - he doesn't think he's hit his stride yet.

“I'm not acclimated to running fast,” said Gatlin. “I feel like I'm making an excuse, but I have to understand that my body hasn't really ran fast in five years. I'm just now getting back to where I need to be.”

He's training in the warmth of Orlando, Fla., under the watchful eye of track guru Brooks Johnson. They're working on boosting his mid-race burst.

So each day Gatlin goes through a drill called the “chase technique,” an exercise in which Gatlin starts two meters behind his training partners. That's a big head start.

Trying to make up that ground has helped him restore his trademark kick. He was known for getting stronger as the race went along, sort of like the Bolt of today, the seemingly uncatchable sprinter who always appears to be running with a head start.

“My velocity is getting there,” Gatlin said. “I'm getting that old Gatlin pickup speed back. I just need to stay hungry.”

And humble.

See, Gatlin realizes that no matter how much repentance he shows for his past, there will be skeptics who believe he doesn't deserve a second chance.

He's made peace with the notion that he can't change the way everyone feels about him.

The former University of Tennessee star was once the protege of Trevor Graham, the former coach who was given a lifetime ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs. Graham also coached dopers Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

Gatlin was on his way to becoming the sensation of American track, billing himself as the sprinter who was doing things the right way and helping the sport emerge from its dope-riddled history.

He was the role model for competing clean - and then got caught.

To this day, Gatlin insists the positive test was caused when a massage therapist rubbed a testosterone-like cream onto his legs.

“I was very quiet throughout my whole ordeal,” Gatlin said. “I understand how track and field is: No matter what you say, it's about what you can do. If you feel that you're innocent, you have to go out there and show the world. That's what I'm on the road to do.”

He's got a spring in his step this offseason, hardly able to contain his vigor with the Olympics rapidly approaching.

That's why he's competing at indoor nationals this weekend for the first time in nearly a decade, just to get more race experience. Gatlin will be one of the favorites in the 60-meter event.

“I feel like I've been reborn again as a sprinter,” Gatlin said. “I'm trying to get that competitive edge back - not worry about those jitters out there under the bright lights.

“Once I have all that down, that's when you see the real Justin again.”

He chuckled.

“You know that Kobe Bryant commercial for his new shoe?” he said of the Nike ad. “On the commercial, they say, `Are you a different animal but the same beast?' That's so fitting for me. Because I'm a different animal than I was in 2004. But I am the same beast.”


Follow Pat Graham on Twitter: