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Track star Gatlin one quick coach

12 March 2007
www.orlandosentinel.com

Justin Gatlin talks with Woodham's Josh Jones after his disappointing finish at the Justin Gatlin Invitational track meet (Tony Giberson) Justin Gatlin talks with Woodham's Josh Jones after his disappointing finish at the Justin Gatlin Invitational track meet (Tony Giberson)
www.orlandosentinel.com
By Andrea Adelson

These kids believe in him. Just look at 'em tripping all over themselves to get closer. They stick out pens and T-shirts and hats and shoes and backpacks, so giddy they look like they are about to fall over.

Two teenage girls squeal, "He touched my leg!" after he signed their spikes. Even though he is the world's fastest man, Justin Gatlin cannot escape the crowd. He stands there until he has signed every last item, turning his back to the boys he helps coach as they long jump and triple jump in the pits behind him.

There is no time to watch the meet that bears his name, not when everyone wants him to be the hometown hero who went out and conquered the world. The people of Pensacola love Gatlin as much as they ever did. How can they turn their back on him when he needs them the most?

Last April, Gatlin tested positive for testosterone precursors and is facing an eight-year ban for agreeing to the accuracy of the results. He is appealing the length of the suspension. As he awaits his fate, Gatlin serves as a volunteer coach at his old school, Woodham High. The community has kept its faith in him, as if the last year never happened.

Used to be a time when the whole country believed in him, too. Gatlin, now 25, led a new generation of young American sprinters with that brilliant smile, adamant about staying away from the steroid scandals that became commonplace in his sport.

The smile is all but faded now. The sweet Justin the world met three years ago now seems more cautious. He is talking now, about how some of his own belief was lost. Gatlin is teaching, but he speaks like someone who has learned. "I'm a caring person," Gatlin says. "I'm a good-hearted person. I try to find the good in everybody. I think that's what put me in this predicament I'm in now."

Of all people, Paul Bryan doesn't need a reminder of what Gatlin means to this place. Bryan has coached the Woodham girls track team for 11 years and also is the school's athletic director. Here, Gatlin is known as "Juice," and it's without a trace of irony. Gatlin, who graduated in 2000, used to drink only juice before practice and meets. Nearly every wall in Bryan's office is covered with Juice: Newspaper clippings of his days at Woodham; of his Olympic victory and world championships.

Gatlin always came back to Woodham to help out, showing up at practice or giving pep talks to his teams. After he was suspended from track and field, Gatlin moved back to Pensacola, where his parents live.

Bryan thought it would be great if Gatlin could help coach the boys team, especially since the school is closing at the end of the year because of decreasing enrollment. Gatlin agreed to volunteer, and works with the kids for free. Woodham got permission from the Escambia County school district to allow Gatlin to coach.

"We looked at the evidence, we looked at who Justin is, what's the message he's going to give those kids and is it going to be a benefit to those kids or is it going to hurt them?" Bryan said. "And have we done the right thing in clearing everybody? We've done all those things."

As he says this, Bryan is facing a wall with a hand-written note from Gatlin tacked up, along with a senior picture from high school.

"Here's a picture of the Juice so you can put it on your wall. Don't forget me because I won't forget you. You're the best coach I have ever seen. Your girls are so so lucky because I wish I had a coach like you."

Now, that note seems poignant.

Gatlin won three medals at the Athens Olympics in 2004, including gold in the 100. He and emerging Americans Lauryn Williams and Allyson Felix got people talking about track again, instead of performance-enhancing drugs.

Still, questions always surrounded Gatlin. He sat squarely in the shadow of Trevor Graham, who coached several athletes who were suspended for doping, including Tim Montgomery. Graham also coached Marion Jones when she won five medals at the 2000 Olympics. Jones was implicated as a cheat, but never caught.

Gatlin also had one strike against him because he was suspended from international competition for two years as a college sprinter at Tennessee for using a prescribed drug for attention deficit disorder, a medicine he had taken since he was a child.

But everyone seemed to overlook his coach and his past. Gracious and charming, with his soft voice and boyish grin, Gatlin emerged as the face of U.S. track. He embraced his new role as one of the standard-bearers against doping. In 2005, he won the world championship in the 100 and 200. Last May, he seemed to seal his place among the sport's greats when he set the world record in the 100 in 9.77 seconds at a meet in Doha, Qatar. (Asafa Powell of Jamaica shares the mark.)

Gatlin knew he had to stay clean, and would be a hypocrite if he didn't. "Yeah. My head's on the chopping block," he said last year. Gatlin trained with Graham in Raleigh, N.C., and believed in his coach.

"I never wanted to test positive again," Gatlin said. "I prevented it as best I could but when you're working with people for three or four years you have a comfort level with them. You believe in them because they're in your circle, you believe they want the best for you like you want the best for them."

Gatlin tested positive before the Kansas Relays in April, a minor meet at the start of the outdoor season. He found out just days before the U.S. track and field championships in June. He maintains that he has never knowingly taken performance-enhancing drugs.

So how did this happen?

"I really don't know," he said. "That's the definition of a victim. I just need to keep my faith and rely on the people who believe in me and believe in faith as well."

He also believes USA Track & Field let him down because it immediately condemned him. After he was suspended, Gatlin wanted nothing to do with the sport because it "made me think that everyone in track and field was against me." He tried out at receiver for the Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals, thinking he might have a chance to play in the NFL simply because of his speed.

"I felt hurt, I felt abandoned," he said. "I've put a lot of effort and a lot of commitment into track and field. Looking at other sports, especially now, they stand behind their athletes. I figured that's something track and field should have done."

But Gatlin was not ready to trade in his spikes for cleats and a helmet. He saw how much support he had in the community, and from fans worldwide who sent him positive e-mails and he decided he would fight to get back onto the track.

Gatlin faced a lifetime ban because he has two positive tests. He agreed to the accuracy of the latest test in order to get a shorter suspension, and is now appealing the eight-year ban that was handed down. He can't talk about specifics of his case, but Gatlin intends to prove that he is no steroid user. A date for his appeal hasn't been announced.

"When the smoke clears, hopefully everything will go back to normal," Gatlin said. "People will at least see the light and understand more of the situation. No, I didn't test positive for steroids. It was a precursor to testosterone. It could have been a chemical compound or something that you take on a daily basis or you're flux in your own levels that can show that kind of situation happening."

His defenders point to the place of the positive test, at a meaningless relay meet in Kansas. If Gatlin was using, why did he come up clean after the Olympics, world championships and when he set the world record?

"I had a pedigree, quote, unquote. I'm a five-time state champion, I won back-to-back national titles in college. It wasn't like I popped up out of nowhere and had this urge to go out and cheat," Gatlin said. "I knew what I wanted since Day 1."

He still wants it. Gatlin is going to start working with a new coach soon, hoping to establish the same type of trust he has with Bryan.

In the meantime, Gatlin comes out to the high school whenever he can, tutoring the boys on technique, but also giving them encouragement. His presence has a profound effect. The boys on the team adore him.

"He's our inspiration," said senior triple jumper/relay runner Pat Richardson, who also is a receiver and signed to play football at USF. "There are a million other places he could be. It shows even though he has the world-class status, he knows where he comes from and he supports his people back home."

Nobody seems to care that Gatlin's career could be over because of his positive drug test. Nobody wants to believe it.

"Justin knows that we're here for him 100 percent," said sprinter/hurdler Josh Jones in a sentiment echoed throughout the team. "When he's here, we block everything out. I know Justin. And that's not him. Until they've been in my shoes, or anyone else's shoes of knowing him, then they don't know. They can say what they want to say, but they're just words."

Everyone here believes in him.

Do you?



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