LONDON - Not far from the still-under-construction Olympic Park, Tyson Gay prepares for the London Games, pushing his mind and body through six-plus hours of promotional photo and video shoots.
All the posing, the smiling, the staring, the talking at camera lenses drains the jet-lagged American track star. It also tries his patience and makes Gay, the world’s second-fastest man, want to break into a full sprint.
But he can’t. In his recovery from hip surgery, there is no fast-forward for Gay. Not now. Not yet.
If promoting the London Games and Adidas products feels awkward in the midst of a challenging recovery, Gay doesn’t show it. If posing in a stare-off with reigning 100-meter world champion Yohan Blake feels uncomfortable, Gay doesn’t mention it.
“I’ve been in that position before,’’ he said. “This is not boxing, but they want to make it look like that.’’
Gay understands the real fight is between himself and his body, in resisting the urge to do too much too soon.
Less than six months before the Summer Games, Gay finds it difficult to hold himself back. The first time he went for the easiest of jogs in November, he wanted to take off. He wants to be in the chase for Olympic medals and records after the disappointment of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he failed to make an event final.
Yet Gay knows he is not really in the conversation. Not now. Not yet.
“I’ve already pretty much been forgotten about,’’ said Gay. “People close to me know that, if I stay healthy, I can be a threat to anybody. But the world, they see Yohan Blake winning the 200 and breaking records sometime because he’s so young. They see Usain Bolt breaking records in the 100.
“I’ve had surgery, so there are a lot of doubts if I can even bounce back. But that’s perfectly fine with me.’’
Gay, 29, actually sounds convincing when he utters that last line. In contrast to the chest-thumping brashness common with top sprinters, Gay is reserved, humble, and soft-spoken.
Still, it has been tough to watch the sprint world move on while he worries about building right hip strength and restoring atrophied right leg muscles. Jamaicans Blake, the 22-year-old up-and-comer, and Bolt, the charismatic world record-holder in the 100 and 200, enjoy the spotlight as London approaches.
It was that way for Gay four years ago after winning the 100 and 200 at the 2007 World Championships. Gay positioned himself as the next great American sprinter, the fastest in a long line of fast men.
“It’s been somewhat difficult mentally because I have goals,’’ said Gay, who not only wants an Olympic medal in 2012, but wants to improve on his national record of 9.69 in the 100. “I’m the type of guy who can get in shape quick.
“And I just want to run fast. I feel good when I run fast, but I’ve had more than one person tell me, ‘Be patient.’ I’m trying my best to be patient. I’m going in the right direction.’’
Pain left him no choice
The 100-meter dash can be thrilling, with sprinters separated by hundredths or thousandths of a second, a blur of arms and legs. At the championship level, the margin for error is almost impossibly thin; everything must align perfectly for top performances. A little tightness here or a twinge there quickly turns a sprinter from favorite to frustrated also-ran.
Bolt is probably the only man who could win Olympic gold by starting poorly, easing up for the last 20 meters, and crossing the line with a loose shoelace.
Gay knows all of this too well. Injuries tripped him up most notably before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2011 World Championships in South Korea.
Last summer, Gay tried to race with his body betraying him, managing the pain in his right hip as best he could under a doctor’s supervision. Finally, he had to withdraw from the 2011 Track and Field Championships before the 100-meter semifinals and then underwent surgery last July 5.
While it was a difficult to pull out of the US championships, Gay had little choice. The operation, his agent Mark Wetmore said, “was the smart thing, the only thing he could possibly do,’’ given the pain.
“I’d patched it up getting shots and numbing it and whatever I could do to run that my body just broke down and couldn’t take no more,’’ said Gay. “My doctor knew it was a good possibility that I’d have to come back and get the surgery because my labrum was torn completely.’’
The arthroscopic procedure, similar to the one performed on Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez, alleviated pain from an impingement in Gay’s right hip. The operation basically made his femur a better fit with his hip socket.
“I couldn’t even think about London right after the surgery,’’ said Gay. “That didn’t even really cross my mind. It was more of a shocker because I’d never been on crutches before. I didn’t even know how to walk on them.
“You don’t know how important your limbs are until you can’t use one. It was stressful. Even though six to eight weeks on crutches doesn’t seem long, it was extremely long when you’re used to running.’’
Gay returned to running - light jogging only - nearly five months after surgery. Since then, his recovery has been intentionally slow, but steady as he strengthens his leg. He expects to start full-speed sprint training next month and enter a relay race in April, perhaps a 4x400 to “get the jitters out and get some strength under my belt.’’
He plans to run a few individual events, at least a couple of 100-meter races, sometime between mid-May and early June in preparation for the trials.
“These guys are so fast there’s always an unknown, but Tyson is such a tough competitor that I have the utmost confidence in his ability to be 100 percent in London,’’ said Wetmore. “I’ve never seen anyone run through as much pain as he does.
“He’s one of the most dedicated athletes you can imagine. He’ll be thorough. He’ll do everything he possibly can to be 100 percent.’’
Step by step
Working out with a group of 11 other Olympic hopefuls in Clermont, Fla., Gay sees that he is more out of shape than his training partners. But he trusts that his 5-foot-11-inch, 165-pound frame will round into top form quickly once more intense workouts begin.
“It’s challenging for all of us involved with Tyson, but most of all him,’’ said Lance Brauman, who has coached Gay from his days at Barton County (Kansas) Community College to Arkansas to now.
“He’s been unfortunate with a couple injuries, but he’s a very talented guy and he’s resilient. He’s had a career where he’s had a couple setbacks, but he knows how to handle those and moves on pretty well.
“We’re in the process of doing the same thing this year.’’
Brauman added that “for the most part, training is going pretty well,’’ and that he is trying to do his best to “keep everything as positive as possible.’’
The coach has adopted a check-box mentality, ticking off all the small, daily steps of progress Gay makes. Pressed for some training milestones reached by Gay, Brauman didn’t have specifics, but simply emphasized that the focus remains on qualifying for the Olympics and doing well at London.
A taste of Olympus
At the 2008 US Olympic track and field trials, Gay was the talk of the meet, for all the right and wrong reasons. In the 100-meter quarterfinals, he set a national record of 9.77 seconds. He won the final with what was then the fastest 100 ever, a wind-aided 9.69.
Gay appeared well on his way to the Olympic podium. But then, he tumbled to the track roughly 12 strides into the quarterfinal round of the 200 meters, grabbing his left hamstring and prompting gasps of horror.
In an instant, his hopes of gold in the 100 and 200 suffered a dramatic detour.
The downed Gay provided one of the most indelible images of the trials and, once again, raised questions about the US qualifying system in track and field. With time missed due to the hamstring injury, he was not the same record-setting sprinter in Beijing as he was at the trials. And the highly anticipated showdown between Gay and Jamaican rivals Asafa Powell and Bolt never materialized. Gay saw his medal hopes end with a fifth-place finish in the 100 semifinal.
“Because I went to the Olympics, I experienced it,’’ said Gay. “But I wasn’t in the finals at the 2008 Olympics, so it was almost like I wasn’t there. So, I’m looking forward to being in the finals, feeling that pressure.’’
But Gay stops himself from thinking that far ahead, even when sitting a short drive from the stadium where track and field will take place in London. After all, his training schedule is geared toward the 100 and 200 at the US Olympic trials, a process perhaps more mentally and physically draining than reaching the Olympic final with all the talented US sprinters.
The list of top 100-meter performances for the 2011 season is dominated by Jamaicans and Americans, including familiar US names like Gay and 2011 World Championship silver medalist Walter Dix. Even with the hip injury and with only three 100-meter races last summer, Gay ran the third-fastest time (9.79) in early June.
The list of 200-meter top performances looks a lot like the 100 list. Dix finished second in the 200 at the World Championships behind Bolt.
Asked if Gay will run both the 100 and the 200 at the trials, Brauman said, “That’s the plan as of now, but we’ll see how training goes and what kind of shape he’s in when that time comes.
“It could be all the way up until the last week before the trials begin. If he’s in the right type of shape and his body is feeling good, he’ll try to run both. If not, then he’ll end up picking which one he’s in the best shape for.’’
With Gay’s résumé, it should only take one fast race to remind people of his sprinting ability and for him to reenter the conversation about Olympic medal favorites.