EUGENE, Ore. -- The sprint world is understandably looking ahead to the Jamaican Olympic trials next week, as the three fastest 100-meter times in the world this year have been run by Jamaicans, led by superstars Usain Bolt (9.76 seconds) and Yohan Blake (9.84), with veteran Asafa Powell (9.85) right behind.
But the fourth man on the world's list of season's-best times could be making some noise this weekend here at the U.S. trials. Justin Gatlin, track's prodigal son, who has come nearly all the way back to his 2004 Olympic gold-medal form after a four-year doping ban, posted a 9.87 earlier this year. And he said he has more speed left in his tank.
"In 2004, I ran 9.85 in the finals of the Olympics," Gatlin said Thursday at a pre-trials news conference. "My season opened with a 9.87, and my coach, Dennis Mitchell, felt like there was definitely a lot of room for improvement."
Gatlin said he's been making those improvements and his training times "are ready to challenge the world."
He was quick to respond when asked if his practice form has reached the level he attained in 2004. "I think so," he said. "My coach's stopwatch hand is pretty accurate. This year we've been putting together a lot of good times at practice."
Asked to elaborate on those times, Gatlin ducked slightly. "All I can really say is that it's better than 9.87," he said. "Much better."
It will likely take much better than 9.87 to challenge Bolt & Co., but Mitchell is confident Gatlin's experience and mentality will allow him to deal with the pressure of this weekend's 100, and anything that comes his way in London.
"When he gets on the track, I don't have to worry about his competitive spirit," Mitchell said. "I know that if the first- or second- or third-best guy in the world is in the race and everybody's fixated on that, he will go out there and execute his race to the T to make sure his goals are met."
Mitchell wouldn't reveal what that execution entails, other than to say he's scouted Gatlin's U.S. and international opponents for weaknesses in their races, and is working on ways to take advantage of them.
The coach, a world-class sprinter himself at the turn of the century, did dish about the time he competed against his pupil, when Gatlin was a freshman at Tennessee. "I beat him, of course," Mitchell said.
Gatlin noted that many in the press have used the word "redemption" to describe his comeback, but to him this season and these trials feel more like a homecoming. "I can say I'm victorious," he said. "I'm happy to be back. I know what it's like to have a talent and not be able to use it."
The doping suspension and resultant criticism made him wiser and more appreciative of what he had, what he lost and hopes to regain. "I may not be the fastest guy out there," he said. "I may not be the most charismatic guy out there. But I'm probably one of the bravest."