The din of excitement in the New Jersey school was reduced to silence as the image of Tyson Gay crouched in the starting blocks came up on the projection screen.
As the video rolled and the American sprinter sped down the track in Shanghai, blowing by Jamaica’s Asafa Powell before stopping the clock at 9.69, the second-fastest time ever in the men’s 100m, the students at St Phillip’s Academy whooped it up and eventually erupted into full applause.
Standing under the screen and watching the video from his US record race in 2009, Gay couldn’t help but smile at the reaction the video elicited from the school children last week.
He also couldn’t help being encouraged by the sprinter he saw on the screen as he prepares to embark on the 2013 outdoor season, where he hopes to recapture some of that past brilliance on both the IAAF Diamond League circuit, beginning with the adidas Grand Prix in New York on 25 May, and at the World Championships in Moscow after several injury-impacted years.
“It reminded me that I can be great,” Gay said afterwards. “It showed me that I have a lot of heart.
“Sometimes injuries can plague you to the point where it breaks you down mentally as well as physically and you just have to find that heart again. When you watch stuff like that it gives you the courage and motivation to keep fighting.”
The overriding theme of Gay’s message to the youngsters was to never give up on a dream. In that regard, he is a worthy role model.
After winning gold in the 100m, the 200m and the 4x100m relay at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Gay fostered dreams of challenging the world record in the 100m, and finding glory as an Olympic medallist; but his body has since failed him on an almost-yearly basis.
After winning the 100m at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, Gay suffered a hamstring injury in the first round of the 200m and never fully recovered. At the Olympic Games in Beijing later that summer, he finished fifth in his 100m semi-final and failed to advance.
In 2009, Gay competed with groin injuries but still wound up winning silver in the 100m at the IAAF World Championships in Berlin before setting that US record at the Shanghai Super Grand Prix. In 2010, an ankle injury kept him out of action until July.
In 2011, he was eventually forced to withdraw from the 100m at the USA Outdoor Championships, the qualification meeting for the World Championships, due to a hip adductor problem that eventually required surgery to correct.
In December of 2011, he suffered a setback in his recovery and was unable to train until March of 2012 when he resumed jogging.
“There were a lot of depressing moments and times seeing my training partners train and compete while I could only watch them,” reflected Gay.
“I was mentally drained. I was in a race against the clock and unfortunately there comes a point where you run out of time. I crammed everything in the best that I could.”
With just one outing, a 10.00 100m in the B race at the adidas Grand Prix in New York, under his belt before the 2012 US Olympic Trials, Gay defied the odds and made the US team after finishing second in the 100m in 9.86.
“My biggest emotion at the Trials was relief,” said Gay. “Some of it was wondering how you just did this when some of these guys have been training a whole year to make the team. There were thoughts about how much I had to be thankful for, including my God-given ability.”
Even though he was far from 100 per cent, and perhaps sensing his own sprinting mortality, Gay said he put immense pressure on himself to win a medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. So much so, that he admitted his thought process was more on getting the medal than executing the things he needed to put himself in position to actually win a medal.
“You kind of throw it all at the wave when your back is up against the wall. It was like running for your life, which is kind of what I did,” he added, thoughtfully.
Gay got a great start out of the blocks in the 100m final, something that has been an Achilles heel throughout his career, but the lack of training he had caught up with him in the latter stages of the race when he didn’t have the endurance to carry that great start through the line.
He wound up finishing fourth behind the Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake as well as his US teammate Justin Gatlin, crossing the line in 9.80.
“It was very crushing,” commented Gay. “It was almost unreal to be that close to my dream only to come up short. Dude, I cried. It just hurt. You don’t know if you’re going to be at the next Olympics because you’re 30. It just breaks you down in the drug testing room, because you don’t know if this is going to be your last drug test at the Olympic Games.
“It was difficult. I stayed in my room for a whole day or so, only coming out to eat. I listened to a lot of people tell me things like, ‘Hey, I wish you would have gotten that medal. I’m sorry.’ That just hurt. So many people told me they wanted me to win that medal, and I had worked so hard and been through so much. It was a tough pill to swallow.”
In an effort to ensure that he remains healthy throughout this season, he has made a number of changes that are already paying dividends.
For starters, he has been able to train uninterrupted since November, something he has been unable to do for the last six years.
A big reason why has been his willingness to accept the fact that with the mileage on his body, he can no longer just hammer the throttle without risking the timing belt on his engine blowing out.
“I would say through injuries and through surgeries, and through just running hard in practice, I have been through a lot. Over the years, I have done a lot of patching up just so I could run. I’d get hurt, patch it up to run, and then get hurt again; then take cortisone shots to get through the pain. I think that stuff catches up to you. Being 30 is not old. I am just now getting to my prime, but I think I have done a lot of pounding on my body.”
A lot of that pounding has been self-inflicted. With Bolt’s emergence in 2008, Gay admitted to pushing himself to the extreme, at times with no regard for his own well-being, to get to that next level.
“This year is actually the first year that I have trained smart. I haven’t pushed myself to the absurd in practice this year. If coach says to run 35 seconds in the 300m, I try to run 35. Normally, I would try and run 32. This time, it has been a lot of hitting the paces, staying healthy, and saving it for the race. I want to see how it plays out.”
diet and diabetes warnings
Another change Gay has made this year has been to his diet.
“In November, I had my blood work done and spoke to my nutritionist and learned that I was predisposed to diabetes,” said Gay. “It was a wake-up call. Diabetes runs on my mom’s side of the family. My dad was diagnosed with diabetes last year. Right around the time of the Olympics, he was rushed to the hospital after feeling light-headed. So it runs in the family, and that’s what’s scary.”
Gay admitted that his eating habits since 2004 had been far from healthy.
“I ate fast-food all the time. There are seven days in a week and I would eat at McDonald’s three times a week, at least.
“There were times I would go twice a day. It’s always because it’s just quick, and when you’re young and burning it off you don’t think much of it; but it can catch up to you. It took me 30 years to find that out. It’s nothing to play with.”
He has now cut fast-food out of his diet and is looking into hiring a chef to cook him healthy meals for the week to keep his diet on the straight and narrow.
Gay said he already feels better and has seen positive changes in his recovery from workouts.
He cited some other lofty goals for the season, among them improving his 100m best of 9.69 and winning a medal at the World Championships, where he is aiming for a 100m and 200m double, something he has not done since before the 2008 Olympic Trials.
He is also looking forward to renewing his rivalry with Bolt, something track and field fans have been deprived of in recent years.
“Those match-ups have probably been lacking. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, he’s ducking so and so.’ I don’t think so.
"I think we all want to race, but we are all on different schedules with different coaches and injuries have played a part. Even in 2010, it was supposed to be myself, Bolt and Asafa in the race in Stockholm. It was supposed to be the race among the fastest three me of all time and it didn’t happen. Asafa got injured, and then Bolt was injured. It’s one of those things that just happens.
“I think this year will be different. I am a lot healthier. Bolt ran a really good 150m in Brazil. I think it’s going to be a really good year.”
Joe Battaglia for the IAAF