Shortly thereafter, he was on his way to Indy to promote the upcoming AT&T USA Track & Field Outdoor National Championships. The event takes place June 21-25 at the Michael Carroll Stadium at IUPUI, and it's the result of Indybased USA Track & Field's initiative to bring more of its events to its hometown.
Talk about good timing.
Track and field's national profile needs a between-Olympic-years boost and track and field locally-the kind that used to electrify this city back in the day when the who's-whos of the sport (Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Edwin Moses, Jackie Joyner Kersee, just to name a few) competed here-needs a revival.
Gatlin, along with a host of rising young American stars, might be the ones to provide the liftoff.
Gatlin, in particular, is everything American track could hope for in an ambassador and superstar: polite, respectful, humble, engaging, highly motivated and, of course, very, very, very fast.
As for that last attribute, if you haven't seen the video of Gatlin's recordtying sprint, trust me when I tell you it was semi-amazing.
Like, he was behind at 60 meters, yet won going away.
That means he made up the difference-and then some-in the last 40 meters. It was as if he hit the after-burner while his competitors hit the brakes.
Yet, Gatlin is convinced there is more.
"I was watching that race and I can see much more improvement," he said during his Indy visit. "I wasn't as technically sound as I could be. I made a lot of mistakes in that race. I think I can run the 100 faster than that and hopefully I can run it here at nationals this year. I want to bring the world record back here to the United States."
That would make for a special Indianapolis double. The fastest women's 100 ever remains Flo Jo's 10.49 here in the 1988 Olympic Trials. It was one of the signature moments in the city's evolution as a sports capital, and further testimony that the IUPUI track was an ultra-fast one.
"I remember the first time they spoke of this track and I had never heard of it ... I'd never heard the history behind it," Gatlin said. "Then [agent] Renaldo [Nehemiah] started telling me about Carl Lewis and his accolades, Flo Jo and just a lot of athletes who have run great times. I got a little envy. Now I can't wait to run here. I can't wait to put my name in the history books as well."
Gatlin knows those history books. He's not merely a participant in the sport, but a student of it. It's another redeeming quality. He listed a string of sprint champions he grew up admiring, including Lewis, Bob Hayes and Michael Johnson. But he also mentioned distance aces Steve Prefontaine and Indiana's own Bob Kennedy, who is co-chairman of next month's championships, as sources of inspiration.
Said Gatlin, "If I don't know whose footsteps I'm walking in, how do I know where I'm going?"
He won six NCAA championships at Tennessee before turning professional. Big money-from appearance fees, setting records, championships (he's the reigning world champion in the 100 and 200)-is his. Still, he has pursued his education and will earn his degree from St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., where he trains.
"Getting my degree is just as important as the world record and the Olympic gold medal," Gatlin said ... with conviction.
He didn't set out to be the world's fastest human, only the best he could be. Growing up in Pensacola, Fla., as soon as he could beat the neighborhood kids in foot races, he raced them again-this time with them on bicycles-and still beat them.
"That's when I knew I might be pretty good," he said.
Now he's 24. He's the Olympic 100 gold medalist, and world champion in both the 100 and 200. It's all there for Gatlin: fame, fortune, glamour, glory.
He insists he won't be trapped by the trappings.
"My job is to run," he said.
Next month, do yourself a favor. Go see Justin Gatlin at work and think about the possibility of these numbers: 9.76 ... or lower.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.