He'd be getting off the bus when a girl he'd always looked up to would challenge him to a race and beat him, yet again. Or he'd be on his couch, whiling away a sticky Kentucky summer in front of the TV and a woman he always looked up to would push him out the door to run the hills behind their house. Or he'd be staring at his lane on the track, whiling away the minutes between training sprints on a hot Arkansas afternoon—no coach to tell him what to do, no telling what would become of his career—and a young woman he'd always looked up to would give a nod, and they'd line up and work on his start again. And when one of his million-dollar legs betrayed him, when four years of work seemed to evaporate in a painful instant, the women he always looked up to were there to stop the tears, to let him know things would work out. To reassure him that there's always a reason.
Tyson Gay is the fastest sprinter in America. In 2007, he was the fastest on earth, winning the 100- and 200-meter events at the world championships in Osaka. In an event normally dominated by bluster and machismo, the soft-spoken Gay forgoes trash talking and listens to gospel music before races. He radiates calm, but his demeanor masks volcanic energy, which erupts in his furious forays down the track.
At the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, that energy both lifted and defeated him. He ran the 100 in a U.S.-record 9.77 seconds, easing up before the finish. The next day, he ran the fastest 100 in history, a wind-aided 9.68 to win the final, setting up a showdown in Beijing against the Jamaican duo of Usain Bolt (who stunned Gay in May by beating him with a world-record 9.72) and Asafa Powell (whose record Bolt shattered). Then, six days after his 100 triumph, Gay returned to the track for a quarterfinal heat of the 200. But 40 meters into that race his left hamstring seized, and Gay dropped to the Oregon track like a bag of flour, his hopes of competing in both sprints dashed. Nonetheless, Gay will take his place in the blocks for the 100 in Beijing, vying again for the title of fastest man on the planet, on the planet's biggest stage. When he does, it will not be an act of defiance, but of perseverance. It is a trait he acquired from the women he's always looked up to.
She carries herself like royalty, which she is to rabid sprint fans in her native Jamaica. Prim smiles. Carefully chosen words. The dignity of someone twice her 26 years. Veronica Campbell-Brown is an icon, and in public she reveals very little.
She's just endured a press conference before May's Reebok Grand Prix in New York, where she and Gay sat side-by-side, never exchanging glances. Gay was even more poker-faced than she was, which isn't unusual. After he ran the 9.68 in Eugene, he analyzed the race this way: "It was okay."
Then Gay enters the back room for a photo shoot, and the mood changes. He punches her in the arm, she slugs him back. Big-sister hard. Next thing you know, his face lights up and they're giggling and play-fighting like kids. But when asked to pose nose-to-nose, she refuses. "I can't do that." She's back to being royalty—until the camera stops and they're giggling again. "Tyson always makes me laugh," she says, "and I can say the same of me for him."
Together, they've been through a lot. Gay was a national-class high-school sprinter but didn't have the grades to attend a D-1 school. Instead, he went to Barton County Community College in Kansas, where he met Campbell. Campbell was also fast, raised in the sprinting hothouse of Trelawny, Jamaica. They grew close. "It's a special friendship, and a work relationship on the track, and I don't think many people have that," Gay says. "You know how there are people in sports you look up to, as examples to follow?" Gay says. "That's who she is for me."
They both transferred to powerhouse Arkansas, following their junior-college coach, Lance Brauman, who became an assistant there. Each won an NCAA sprint title for the Razorbacks. Campbell turned pro, then went to Athens and won gold in the 200 and bronze in the 100. Gay had to wait. His hamstring cramped during 200 final at the 2004 trials and he failed to make the team. He stayed in college and continued training with Campbell and fellow Razorback Omar Brown, a Jamaican sprinter and Campbell's sweetheart (they married last year). They'd swap training ideas, business tips and motivational books. Gay won the NCAA 100 in 2004, broke 20 seconds in the 200 in 2005, and turned pro. In 2006, he lowered his 200 time to 19.68, then the third fastest time ever.
Then, suddenly, they were on their own. Brauman was convicted of, among other things, mail fraud, for attempting to fix Gay's junior college grades without Gay's knowledge. The price for Gay and Campbell? In 2007, with the world championships looming and Beijing on the horizon, they trained themselves, following workouts Brauman sent before starting his 12-month, one-day prison sentence.
Gay burst out early in 2007, dominating the 200 and the 100, running two wind-aided times in less than 9.8 seconds. But with Brauman absent, Gay realized he needed additional help. So he called former U.S. Olympian Jon Drummond to work on his start. His cleaner starts in Osaka helped him to two world titles. Now, Gay uses both coaches—Brauman (who completed his sentence in September) early in the season, Drummond when it heats up. But with all his success, Gay remains in awe of his friend, who won her world title in the 100 last year without help from anyone. "That's so unusual," he says. "Most women have coaches on them all the time. But Veronica went without a coach and won at the highest level. She's a champion. It inspires me."
Daisy Gay Lowe will tell you she was nothing special as an athlete. She loved to compete, but it was her mom—Tyson's grandmother—who ran at Eastern Kentucky. That's where Tyson got his speed; Daisy just helped nurture it. "I never saw a kid who was so fast, who was so good," she says. And so blasé. "He wasn't getting the most out of what God poured into him." So after classes, sometimes after practice, she'd make Tyson and his sister, Tiffany, run 150-meter sprints up the hills, one after another. "I didn't know what I was doing," she says, "but I remember my high school coach telling us if you wanted to be good, you ran hills."
They ran the hills the first time and then according to Daisy, Tyson broke the stadium record in the 200 the following Saturday. Daisy was right there with an I-told-you-so: "See what you can do if you put forth a little more effort?"
She's still urging him on. Tyson calls often, and she's always there for advice. "When he didn't have a coach, I told him this isn't going to derail him. It's not going to be a hindrance. You don't have to rely on one person for your coaching. This was a blessing in disguise. If it hadn't happened, he'd have never met Jon Drummond and he probably wouldn't have improved his start so much."
Her energy is undeniable, but not overbearing. Daisy and Tyson's father never married, and in 1995 she married Tim Lowe, a coworker at the Toyota plant near Lexington. They've since moved to Prattville, AL, where Daisy's now a stay-at-home mom caring for her two children with Lowe, who works for Hyundai. Lowe, who is white, can talk sports all day in his rich southern accent, and is as affable as Daisy.
It's no surprise to either of them that Tyson works well with women. "I think our whole family is that way," Daisy says. "We've always had, I guess, peculiar friends." She pauses, then adds, "I mean, look at Tim," then roars with laughter.
"Thanks, dear," says her husband.
"I think Tyson's drawn to strong-willed women," Daisy concludes. "Have you seen his momma?"
She and Tim crack up again.
They were born 10 months apart, and from the time they were 7 or 8, they raced every chance they had. In the yard. Up the streets. Getting off the bus. That's when Tyson claims he finally beat his sister, getting off a bus from school, when he was 14. "Kind of strange," he admits. According to Tiffany, it didn't happen at all. Tyson has never beaten his sister. "The truth hasn't been told, no," says Tiffany, who has the same soft, big, round eyes as her brother. That day on the bus, she says, he just took off running, got a jump on her. "To this day I still say he didn't win," she says. So maybe he never did beat her.
Not many people did, at least in high school. Tiffany dominated her region at Lexington's Lafayette High as a sophomore and junior in the 100 and 200, just like her brother. While Tyson came out of the blocks like an eggbeater, limbs and head flying, Tiffany got out smooth and fast. "I begged my coach to let me take the starting blocks home," she says. "My mom made sure I used them."
Daisy says she rarely had to push Tiffany to work. Her daughter remembers differently. "She'd be cooking dinner, and we'd be sitting in the kitchen, you know, just right in the midst of the aroma, can't wait to eat, and she'd say something like, 'Why don't you go on out and run that back hill? It's easier to get your workout in without your stomach full.'"
If you'd asked Daisy eight years ago which one of her kids would make the Olympics, "I'd have said both." It didn't work out that way. Tiffany got pregnant before her senior year and put sprinting on hold to raise her child. Tyson became a parent a year later (to daughter Trinity), but the consequences are different for teenage boys. Tiffany went to work, then to school part time. Her brother kept running and started making a name for himself.
Tiffany is fiercely proud of Tyson's success. At Tyson Gay Day in Lexington, held last October at Lafayette High, Tiffany gave a speech introducing her brother. "I am so proud of the man he has become," she said. What did she mean by that? "Just seeing how he handles himself, thinking about how he's grown up," she says now. "We both used to be cocky when we played sports, and he could get in your face, but he's not like that in the professional world. He's really humble. And he's a good father to his daughter. I just love how he cares for his family. What can I say?"
Of course, she's still his sister, so she probably won't say that to his face too often. When they're together, she sees her job as providing him an outlet from the pressure of sponsors, fans and media. "We never talk about track," she says. They goof off, watch movies and giggle like 12-year-olds. They bought mopeds for their daughters, now ages 7 and 8, but as soon as the motors charged, Tyson and Tiffany took off racing around the block. "The kids had to watch," she says laughing.
There was another side to his success, though. Every time Tiffany went to one of Tyson's meets, she'd break down thinking of what could have been. "When I stepped onto the field, I could feel my eyes watering, and I'd try to suck it in," she says. She never could.
About a year ago, a family friend named Kenneth Gibson, who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown College near Lexington and a long-time track coach, encouraged Tiffany to start training again. She took him up on it, and tried running 60 meters against an electronic timer. It wasn't like the radar gun scene in The Rookie—the timer read 8.5 seconds, far slower than she'd run in high school. In sports, eight years is a lifetime. But she'd seen what her brother had done and that old diligence kicked in. She kept training. In February, she entered an indoor meet, unattached. "I was really nervous," she says. "I was scared I'd run in the 8s. When I hit the blocks, my hands were shaking." Tiffany hit the finish line in a respectable 7.6. It was fun. Satisfying. "I still have a passion for it," she says. "And I still want to do it."
She will keep running as she finishes her degree at Georgetown, in athletic training. At Tyson's meets, she watches all the sprinters, observing their drills, their stretches, seeing what she can apply to herself. She has a time in mind that she'd like to run. That's private, for now. The important thing is she's up and running again.
There wasn't a dry eye in the household. Tiffany's daughter cried. Tyson's daughter cried. Tiffany cried. Tyson himself shed some tears. He lay on the track at Oregon's Hayward Field as a silent crowd of 20,834 fans witnessed another unforgiving chapter of Olympic trials history, another victim of the harsh U.S. selection system. One slip-up, one cramp, and you're out, no matter who you are or what you did a year ago. Or a week ago. A few strides into the quarterfinal heat of the 200, the most important muscle in Gay's left leg betrayed him, just like it had at the 2004 trials. His hopes of becoming the face of America for two weeks this summer seemed dashed.
Then Daisy went into action. Wearing a T-shirt with her son's face on it, she marched down to the Bowerman Building, the building next to the track where they'd wheeled her son. As doctors examined his leg, Daisy started praying. Tiffany dried her tears and showed up too. "You know how you can start thinking one bad thought, and then it starts another and another?" Daisy asks. "I went in there to stop that. I wasn't going to let that happen. I told him this happened for a reason." When he left the building, heading to the hospital, Gay was once again composed and polite as ever, saying he hoped to be in the blocks for the 100 in Beijing.
Ever since he's been running, Gay has battled something. His sister, his grades, his coaching situation, Powell, Bolt. Now it's the calendar and his left hammy. He nixed plans to run the 100 at a meet in London last week, saying he didn't want to risk testing the strained muscle yet.
But the struggle is relative. Yes, it might be the end of an Olympic dream. No, it's not the end of the world. Gay is a well-compensated athlete, with endorsements from McDonald's, Alltel, Sega and Omega watches, and a shoe deal with Adidas. He is well able to provide for his daughter, and he's already immortalized her through his labors—his signature track shoe is the Trinity, named after her. He will survive a hamstring cramp. And if he beats Bolt in Beijing, that gold medal will be worth a lot more now. Besides, getting up after defeat, pushing yourself when you don't want to, coping with doubt, those things are worth something too. Sometimes, just getting back on the track is the greatest victory of all. Tyson Gay already knows that. Some wise women taught him.
Want to learn more about track timing systems? Check this out:
4 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT TRACK TIMING AT THE OLYMPICS