EUGENE, Ore. – Tyson Gay took a giant swig of water and then another before crouching into the starting blocks.
The American record holder breathed deeply and cleared his mind – forgetting all about the surgically repaired right hip or that he really hasn’t tested it out at top-end speed in more than a year.
All that mattered was this race before him, the 100-meter final in the U.S. Olympics trials Sunday.
And after flying down the track, not a trace of a limp in his step, this much was clear: The old Tyson Gay was back. He finished second to 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin, who crossed the line in 9.80 seconds. Gay was only 0.06 seconds behind, but the time hardly mattered.
He was headed to the London Games when a year ago that very notion looked improbable.
“Bittersweet. I always like to win,” Gay said. “I came in second. But at the end of the day, it was about making the team. I got to make sure I turn this little bit of a frown into a happy face. For me to start training in March and make the team is a beautiful accomplishment.”
Also joining Gatlin and Gay in London will be 23-year-old Ryan Bailey, who edged 2009 U.S. champion Mike Rodgers, Doc Patton and Walter Dix, the Olympic bronze medalist in Beijing.
Dix pulled up in the semifinals with a left hamstring injury and wasn’t the same in the final.
He’s hoping to be ready for the 200 later this week.
“Things like this happen. I really can’t say much about it,” Dix said.
For Gatlin, his comeback is nearly complete.
The last time he was at the Olympics trials – eight years ago – he was a youngster about ready to become the next big thing in sprinting. He won gold in Athens and a world title the following year, before his fall from grace.
He tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, leading to a four-year ban.
Now 30, he’s attempting to repair his tarnished image.
“Usually, I have a lot of words. I’m almost speechless,” Gatlin said. “Everything just feels so surreal. I just let the heart really go out and do what it had to do.
“I wasn’t too hyped, wasn’t too calm. It felt just right and went out there and gave it my all. I have a lot more left in the tank.”
How much faster can he go?
“Enough to win another gold,” he said.
As expected, LaShawn Merritt cruised to the 400 title. So did Sanya Richards-Ross moments later in the women’s race.
Both looked sharp with London right around the corner.
Merritt, the reigning Olympic champion, finished in a world-leading time of 44.12 seconds. Joining him on the squad were Tony McQuay and USC standout Bryshon Nellum, who has an incredible story: Making the team after being shot in the legs as he left a restaurant near campus following a Halloween party in 2008.
Noticeably missing from the 400 team was Jeremy Wariner, the silver medalist in Beijing and 2004 Olympic gold medal winner. He finished a distant sixth and won’t be going to London, unless it’s as a member of the relay team.