Not every athlete gets a second chance. Particularly not after receiving a four-year ban, tantamount to a sports "death sentence."
But in one of the most incredible stories of perseverance in sports over the last decade, American Justin Gatlin is back this week in London, competing for the prestigious title of "World's Fastest Man” at the Olympic Games.
Following his victory in the 100 meter track and field event at the Athens games, Justin Gatlin was a sprinting superstar on top of the world. He already had a professional contract with Nike, after forgoing his final two years of college at the University of Tennessee.
Gatlin won all three colors of medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, receiving the bronze in the 200 meters and the silver as part of the 4x100 meter relay team. Then came professional endorsements, offers to compete in lucrative track and field competitions and even a try-out with the Houston Texans.
Then, after a rocket-like ascent to the top, Justin Gatlin was stopped dead in his tracks.
Gatlin was informed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) in July of 2006 that he had tested positive for a banned substance in April of that year. In an instant, the former gold medalist in the 100 meter dash at the 2004 Athens summer games found his world crashing down around him.
For eight years, an athlete in the prime age of his career, at the apex of his sport—who had become the face of American track and field—would have to let his otherworldly speed rest from athletic competition.
On December 31, 2007, Gatlin found out that the original ban of eight years, delivered in August 2006, would be reduced to four years. Nevertheless, it was a devastating blow to an athlete that had the world at his fingertips and was primed to defend his 100 meter gold medal at the Beijing games in 2008.
Over those next several years, Gatlin watched as the new champion of the sport, “The Lightning Bolt” Usain Bolt, captured the gold medal in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay race for Jamaica. Bolt finished with an official time of 9.69, smashing the world record and eclipsing Gatlin’s 2004 gold medal time by .16 seconds.
Fast forward four years to June 2012, where Gatlin showed up to the to the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove. The Pensacola, Florida native was out to show that at age 30 he could not only compete, but outrun sprinters one-third his age.
Thirty years young may not seem old to many, though in the uber-competitive world of track and field sprinting, those at the top of the sport are usually in their early-mid 20s.
Gatlin won the competition, finishing with the fastest time in history for a man over the age of 30. He defeated his American rival, Tyson Gay, in the process, showing he is ready to compete with Jamaican powerhouses, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt. Bolt remains world's fastest man for now and is set to defend his 100m gold medal from Beijing in London.
Gatlin's story is one of true courage and persistence. Where so many others would have given up and let their pride—and the sheer reality of the ban's length—get in the way, this man found inspiration in his faith and the comfort from fans and a very supportive inner circle.
Gatlin is quick to express his thanks:
“I've been through some dark paths. What really has been able to help me keep my faith was the faith of my fans. Them believing in me, wanting me to come back, knowing I’m a true athlete, a legit athlete."
Following that very dark day in July 2006, no one could have envisioned Justin Gatlin being the American favorite to medal—maybe even grab gold—at the 2012 Olympic Games. Even Gatlin truly had to doubt whether his Olympic dream could come true again.
Now, after several years, exceptional dedication and unwavering belief, Justin Gatlin is daring to be the greatest in the world yet again.
"I know what it feels like to have a talent and not be able to use it for half a decade," he says. "My life as a U.S. track and field athlete is very special to me now, probably more so than before."