A wide-eyed Justin Gatlin made his professional debut under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden at the 2003 Millrose Games. Bursting with excitement and nervousness, he struggled to stand still as he prepared to run an indoor 60m race in front of a crowd of 11,800.
He suddenly stopped when he saw Maurice Greene patiently waiting by the starting blocks. Gatlin vividly recalled watching on television as Greene won the Olympic 100-meter gold medal just three years earlier.
“I felt like I won a radio contest to race against one of my idols in one of his best events,” Gatlin recalled.
Gatlin shot out of the blocks quickly and finished second, behind Terrence Trammell, but .03 seconds ahead of Greene.
“I knew then,” Greene said, “he would be one of the top contenders.”
More than 13 years later, Gatlin is still one of the sport’s fastest sprinters. He now considers himself a “wiser” athlete, and credits smarter training for his longevity.
He ran his personal best in both the 100m and 200m in 2015 at the age of 33.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing how I’ve been able to reinvent myself each year and evolve and get better,” Gatlin said.
Gatlin gave himself the advice he wishes he'd heard back in 2003:
Avoid Fried Foods
Fried foods regularly made appearances on Gatlin’s plate back in 2003. With a fast metabolism and a grueling training regimen, he gave little thought to his diet.
Now that Gatlin is 34 years old, he has almost entirely banished fried foods from his diet, along with red meats and refined sugars. He also limits his intake of carbs.
During the offseason, Gatlin will weigh up to 188 pounds. On a normal day during the season, he will weigh about 183 pounds. But on race day he will drop down to 176 or 177 pounds to feel light and fast.
Gatlin compared his weight loss for a big race to a boxer slimming down for a major bout.
“Boxers have to get fight ready,” Gatlin said. “I get race ready.”
Nearly all sprinters look reserved when compared to Usain Bolt and his charismatic victory celebrations. But Gatlin appeared particularly stoic early in his career.
“I just zoned in and wanted to be good, the best,” Gatlin said.
Gatlin watched Bolt bounce around the track after races, interacting with fans and posing for the photographers.
“He taught me to have fun with it,” Gatlin said. “Everything doesn’t have to be intense.”
Gatlin has since made a conscience effort to become more of a showman. He often posts amusing videos on social media, including an Instagram clip that shows him entering an ice bath.
“Now I’m having fun,” Gatlin said. “I love running and getting out there acting a fool for the camera.”
Even Bolt has noticed Gatlin’s improved attitude.
“Justin Gatlin is actually a cool person when he’s not talking and saying what he is going to do,” Bolt said at 2015 Worlds.
There was only one speed to Gatlin’s workouts in 2003: fast.
He rushed through his warmup. He overlooked technical work. Every repetition was at full speed.
“It was like letting a dog out of the house,” Gatlin said. “Just go.”
Technique is now Gatlin’s biggest focus in training. He spends hours perfecting his form and studying film of his favorite sprinters, including Greene and Carl Lewis.
“I am a student of the game,” Gatlin said. “Now I am actually teaching other athletes how to become better runners.”
Gatlin has surrounded himself with a stable of legendary runners. His agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, was the first athlete to run the 110-meter hurdles in under 13 seconds. He regularly speaks with Greene and Allen Johnson, the 1996 Olympic 110m hurdles champion.
“I am a strong believer that you need to know where you’re coming from before you know where you’re going,” Gatlin said.