BEIJING — I spent an hour listening to one of the three fastest men living on the planet speak in slow, articulate sentences earlier this week.
It was fascinating.
Tyson Gay, the American sprinter, offered an intriguing look into the mind-set of 100-meter sprinters and the thought process that goes into track and field’s most glamorous event.
As expected, the press conference began with Gay telling reporters that his hamstring is “100 percent now.”
He added: “I don’t feel any aches or any twitching or anything like that. I’ve been staying hydrated and treating my body very well, so I’m really confident that it’s going to hold up.”
Let’s review the story: At the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., Gay set an American record in the 100-meter quarterfinals, clocking a blistering 9.77, besting Maurice Greene’s 9.79. In the final, he ran a wind-aided 9.68, the fastest recorded time ever, though it is not recognized as the world record due to Mother Nature having too much influence on the outcome.
A week later, Gay tumbled to the ground in the 200 quarterfinals shortly after leaving the blocks. An MRI confirmed the injury was a mild strain of the semitendinosus muscle.
There was widespread suspicion that Gay would be unable to compete in Beijing.
He now says he’s ready to go in the 100 and the 200 and is potentially read to line up to compete for Team USA in the 4×100-meter relay.
Gay was one of the biggest stories at the 2007 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka, winning golds in the 100, 200 and the aforementioned relay, so it was only natural for people to hope he’d be able to compete against Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell in the Beijing Games.
That’s why Gay planned his recovery from the injury as carefully as he’s done anything in his life.
“I’d rather be 100 percent coming to the Olympics than racing at 85 percent going to another meet,” he noted, explaining his rationale for skipping other athletic meets before the Olympics.
Gay visited Dr. Hans Muller-Wolfharth, who specializes in the treatment of hamstring injuries, especially for soccer stars, in Germany. Massage therapy and weight training were also part of Gay’s rehabilitation in Germany.
“I don’t really mind if people say I’m the underdog,” Gay said.
“Coming off the hamstring injury, that was pretty scary for me.”
The topic quickly changed as Gay addressed the 40th anniversary of U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith, the gold medalist, and bronze-medalist John Carlos raising their fists during the 200-meter awards ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Games, which symbolized nonviolent protest and a call to action for civil rights for blacks in the United States.
“They made a way for me,” Gay said. “They started this track thing. I definitely understand what they did and what they stood for.
“I respect them.”
As briskly as Gay covers 10 meters on the track, reporters’ questions were fired in his direction.
One reporter wanted to know if a speedy start will be the key ingredient in the 100-meter final, a race that Gay, Bolt or former world record-holder Powell are expected to be the favorites in, especially current world record-holder Bolt, who has excelled in the 100 this year after making his debut in it after previously focusing on the 200.
Bolt set the mark of 9.72 seconds at the Reebok Grand Prix on May 31 in New York City.
“I think the start will be very crucial, but I don’t necessarily (consider it the No. 1 key),” Gay said.
“The environment’s going to be difficult. There’ll be a lot of pressure.”
What is Gay’s view of the pressure Bolt will face in the 100?
“I don’t know how he’s taking it,” Gay said, “but it’s a lot of pressure.”
Gay turned 26 on Aug. 9. He celebrated his birthday with 90,000 of his closest friends inside of the Bird’s Nest, aka National Stadium, during the Opening Ceremony last Friday evening.
This Friday, Gay returns to competition, but this time as a first-time Olympian. His debut will be in the morning’s 100-meter preliminaries.
The semifinals are set for Saturday and at 11:30 p.m. Japan time on Sunday, the 100-meter Olympic champ will be crowned.
Gay expects the final to be a scintillating race.
“Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt are looking good right now and running phenomenal times” he said. “So it has the possibility to be one of the fastest finals.
“With three guys that can run 9.7s, anything’s possible.”
Responding to a question about his impression of 110-meter hurdler Liu Xiang, China’s most popular Olympian from the Athens Games after winning the nation’s first-ever gold in track and field, Gay’s answer drew laughter from the audience.
“Liu Xiang is cool, man,” Gay said with a golden smile. “I met him in New York. He asked me to help him with his start.
“I’m pretty sure he has a little bit of pressure as well.”
Ah, yes, pressure. It’s one of the most frequently used words here in Beijing these days.
Meeting Olympians is another activity that consumes a lot of time here. For Gay, that’s included a memorable conversation with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
“We were in the gym, and I asked him if I could take a picture with him so I could have it for memories,” Gay said. “He said, ‘How’s your leg? I’m going to check you out. I’ll keep you in my heart.’
“He said he was going to come and check out the track meet. That was crazy. I (text-messaged) my mother and told her. It was just amazing. This is the best experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
He may have a new No. 1 experience on Sunday, depending on what occurs in the 100-meter final.
Call it the biggest challenge of Gay’s adult life, specifically the anticipated showdown with Bolt.
“In order to beat him, I have to run 9.6, most likely,” Gay said. “That’s kind of what I train my mind to do, to run a 9.6.”
His nerves may be a bit jittery — he characterized this as “the sooner, the better,” in terms of his how he feels about getting back on the track.
But he always knows he needs to have one focus for the 10 seconds of sensational speed.
“I just try to focus on the gun,” he said.
And then he bursts ahead at speeds that rival the first few gears of a Ferrari.