Tyson Gay: “I think my best years are ahead of me”

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Find out how one of the world’s fastest men ever must battle his own body, not to mention Usain Bolt, for a shot at immortality.

It is six years since Tyson Gay ruled the world of sprinting. Although 2007 should probably come with the prefix BB: Before Bolt, or at least Before Bolt bolted.

BB, Gay was king, landing a memorable 100m, 200m and 4x100m treble at the World Championships in Osaka.

The Kentucky-born sprinter was also crowned the 2007 World Athlete of the Year, with many predicting he would go on to dominate global sprinting for years.

For two good reasons, Gay’s career has not quite panned out that way.

Firstly, his body has consistently let him down. Groin and hips injuries have severely curtailed his training regimen, hampering his ability to find his best form. Secondly, we’ve witnessed the rise of the Jamaican sprinters, led by the incomparable Bolt.

Since 2007 we’ve witnessed the 15 fastest times in history for the 100m and the world record has tumbled by 0.19, as much as it did in the 39 years prior. Fourteen of the 15 fastest 200m times in history have also been set since 2007, with Bolt skimming 0.13 off Michael Johnson’s record.

So can Gay comprehend the giant leap forward that sprinting has taken in the past half-dozen years?

“Yes, I’m amazed,” says Gay, chatting to SPIKES on the telephone from New York. “The 100m has gone from 9.8 to 9.7 and then 9.6 to 9.5. It is just amazing to see how the sprinters have progressed in the past few years.”

It would be unfair to say that the 30-year-old American has been left behind in the smoke trailed wake of Bolt and co. When fit, Gay is still very competitive. His 100m PB of 9.69 places him joint second on the all-time lists. Staying fit has been the problem.

Hip surgery ruled him out of competitive action from June 2011 for almost 12 months, yet he was still good enough to make the US 100m Olympic team for London. Once there he ran a season’s best 9.80 in the 100m final, but agonisingly missed out on a medal by 0.01, placing fourth behind his countryman Justin Gatlin.   

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Beating Bolt: Gay on his way to 200m gold at the Osaka 2007 World Championships.

His time in London would have been good enough for 100m silver at Beijing and gold at every previous Olympic Games.

“Yes, it took a bit of time to recover [from the disappointment],” says Gay. “I just felt I worked so hard with the little bit of time that I had [to fully train]. I felt I did my best but to come up just short of a medal was painful.”  

This winter the Florida-based athlete has adopted a different approach to training, with his dual coaches Jon Drummond (2000 Olympic US relay champion) and Lance Brauman.

And for a man who lives for speed, he has adopted what appears a counter-intuitive approach to running fast.

“I’ve slowed things down,” he says. “I’ve slowed my pace down in training, so I can try to finish all the work rather than run one rep really hard and not complete the set.”

This new strategy he hopes will help condition his body for the demands of hitting top speeds of around 23mph (37kph) without breaking down, a consistent weakness throughout the past five years of his career.

“I think this new approach to training will really help my strength levels,” he explains. “As long as I stay healthy and strong in the hip and the other muscles I think I can improve upon my times.”

But can he beat the other clock? Gay celebrated his 30th birthday during the London Olympic Games. Besides the omnipresent threat of Bolt, seven men (including Gay) ran sub 9.90 for the 100m last season. Nineteen men dipped below 10 seconds.

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Gay hands over to Ryan Bailey as Yohan Blake passes it to Bolt in London.

The next generation of athletes are also knocking on the door. British teenager Adam Gemili landed the 2012 world junior title in 10.05 and this year Japanese sprint prodigy Yoshihide Kiryu, 17, recorded a stunning world junior record equalling mark of 10.01.

“It is absolutely amazing considering at the same age I was running 10.5,” says Gay. ”I don’t know where the next star is going to come from, although Jamaica has an advantage because they have so many young guys. They are inspired by their superstars and seem to be running faster and faster from an early age.”

Gay refuses to throw in the towel. He plans to compete in the 100m at the Jamaica International Invitational this weekend; at the New York Diamond League on May 25 and one other meet, “maybe Prefontaine” (on June 1st), before the US Trials. There he intends to compete in both the 100m and 200m, the latter an event he has competed in only once since 2010.

Even entering his third decade, Gay is adamant he can make a major impact in 2013. He draws encouragement from the fact Linford Christie landed the 1992 Olympic 100m title at the age of 32. With a fair wind and a sustained injury-free period, Gay is confident he can make an impact this summer and beyond.

“My hip gives me a problem here and there but besides that I’m going well and training good,” he says. “If I run smart and stay healthy, I think my best years are ahead of me.”