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Tyson Gay is pain free for the first time in more than two years and, at 30, the American sprinter is trying to resurrect his career after hip, groin and hamstring injuries.
For so long, pain has followed Tyson Gay around the track.
If it wasn’t his hamstring giving him grief in a workout, it was his surgically repaired hip or groin. He’s almost grown accustomed to the ever-present aches that have haunted him over his career, even come to expect them at certain points in his training routine.
So the other day when the American 100-meter record holder opened up around a curve in Clermont, Fla., he nearly stopped mid-stride as he felt, well, nothing.
No twinge in his hip. No tweak in his groin. No tightness in his hamstring.
That hasn’t happened in years.
“Things are finally going in a good direction,” Gay said in a telephone interview.
At 30 and in the twilight of his career, Gay is training wiser to give his body more of a break. He intends to be around — and healthy — for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, hoping to capture that elusive individual Olympic sprint medal and maybe, just maybe, do what no one has been able to do lately — close the gap on Usain Bolt.
That’s a tough assignment, though. The Olympics have long been Bolt’s playground, where he performs and entertains at such a high level.
There was a time — not all that long ago, either — when Gay was the top sprinter on the planet, winning gold in the 100 and 200 at the 2007 world championships. But that was before his rash of injuries and just a step ahead of Bolt’s rise to prominence.
“I’ve been trying to catch him for a while,” Gay said. “I have to stay focused on me and run my race the best I can. Hopefully, it comes together at the right time, because all of his races have been coming together at the right time. That’s what it’s all about.”
Gay knows that many will be writing him off long before Rio rolls around. After all, he will be at an age when most sprinters contemplate retirement, not ramping up.
There’s also a deep pipeline of U.S. sprinters coming up through the ranks, all wanting to take Gay’s place.
That’s fine to dismiss him. The quiet and humble Gay — rare traits for a sprinter — hardly minds, because he believes he still has more in him.
“Some of my best times have always come after me being hurt,” said Gay, who plans to ease into competition this season with a few local races in Florida. “I’m looking forward to proving myself.”
When healthy, Gay can keep up with any sprinter who steps into the blocks. After all, he’s the second-fastest man in history, thanks to a 9.69-second 100 at a 2009 meet in Shanghai (Bolt’s record is 9.58 and Yohan Blake tied Gay’s mark last season).
Gay thinks he can go even lower, too, break his personal-best. He also plans to incorporate the 200 into his repertoire again, an event he backed off of because of his hip. He has the fifth-fastest time ever at 19.58 seconds (Bolt’s record is 19.19).
“I’m really starting to feel good again,” he said.
About this time last season, Gay was still hobbling around on crutches following hip surgery. The London Olympics were only a few months away and he was hardly walking at full speed, let alone sprinting.
Steadily, though, Gay rounded into shape and was healthy enough to run at U.S. trials, where he finished second to make the squad.
In the weeks before the Olympics, he gradually worked his way back into world-class condition and was expected to possibly contend for a medal in the 100.
On that August day, Gay took off on his repaired but hardly pain-free hip, chugging down his lane with his cheeks puffing in and out. When he leaned across the line, Gay thought he had it — not a win, because Bolt wasn’t about to be caught, but a medal.
Then the results flashed on the scoreboard: Bolt, Blake and in third ... Justin Gatlin, Gay’s U.S. teammate.
Gay soon broke down in sobs as he finished in fourth place, tantalizingly close to a podium spot.
He was so choked up he could barely speak after the race.
Even now, months later, it’s hard for him to describe the disappointment.
“I wanted to make my mom proud, my family proud. I felt like I let people down,” he said. “You work so hard, go through the ups and downs, all the injuries. I don’t know, man, it’s tough.”
Gay took a few days off to regroup, then helped the 4x100 relay team to a silver medal with an American-record time (37.04 seconds).
Sure, it was a medal as part of a group. But that hardly mattered to Gay.
“That’s a memory I will always have,” Gay said. “I didn’t want to go away empty-handed.”
Gay was supposed to challenge Bolt at the Beijing Games in 2008, but a severe hamstring injury slowed the University of Arkansas standout.
No regrets, though. No looking back, either.
“I had to have groin surgery. Nothing I could do about that. I had to have hip surgery. Nothing I could do about that. Just bad luck,” Gay said. “I think those injuries helped me become the person I am. I still have a lot left in the tank.”
As for how much longer he will race, he plans to let his times dictate that.
“I don’t want to end my career running 10.2 seconds,” said Gay, who hopes to conduct speed camps when he retires, teaching athletes such as base stealers in baseball how to more effectively use their quickness. “I want people to remember me running great.”
Asked how his career will he be remembered by the track world, especially given all his ailments, Gay hesitated for an instant.
“I’ve thought about that before,” Gay said. “I think history is going to say, ‘This guy was a great runner, ran some amazing times, but hasn’t gotten the big one ...”’
He paused and then laughed.
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