PHILADELPHIA -- Slowly, steadily, Justin Gatlin continues his efforts to shed unwanted baggage.
The American heads into the Penn Relays on Saturday ready to take on the world, literally, in the USA vs. the World 4x100 relay at Franklin Field. And the fallen star is lighter in both body and spirit than he's been in years.
"I weighed 183 when I won my gold in '04," Gatlin said Friday, referring to his 100-meter victory at the Athens Olympics. "I'm 183 again."
He was a champion again after winning a world indoor title last month in Istanbul when he bested Jamaica's Nesta Carter in the 60-meter final.
It's a far cry from two years ago, when Gatlin was a 210-pound has-been, beginning a comeback from a four-year IAAF doping ban for elevated testosterone levels. After the triumph in Istanbul, he admitted to worrying during his exile that he'd never again be relevant in the sport. First, Tyson Gay rose in Gatlin's absence to dominate the U.S. and world stage in 2007; a year later, Jamaica's Usain Bolt broke records and attained heights of human performance never seen before.
But Gatlin's 2012 indoor season captured people's attention, and even has his competition in a forgiving mood. Bolt's coach, Glen Mills, said on a conference call this week, "I don't believe that somebody should be sentenced to death or banned for life," and that Gatlin's world title "indicates he is back to the level where he was."
Gatlin didn't plot his path to prominence this way. He hired former U.S. sprint star Dennis Mitchell as his coach in November and began the winter with a specific focus.
"I just wanted to work on my start," he said Friday. "I wanted to get the first part of my race together. I wasn't even thinking about world championships or nationals or anything like that. I just wanted to get a couple of races in and prep myself for the outdoor season."
But Mitchell, whom Gatlin called "a taskmaster, a perfectionist," altered his thinking. If Gatlin was running indoors, Mitchell told him, then he'd have to run in the world championships. And if he was running at worlds, he was winning the gold medal.
Never mind that Gatlin hadn't competed in the 60 meters since his teens; he set about critiquing his start and, at Mitchell's urging, working on "every little movement." He succeeded so well, he found himself on the podium in Istanbul.
That attention to detail matters a lot more in the Bolt era.
"The margin is smaller, and the age of running away from the field is probably past us," Gatlin said.
Since Bolt's record-setting explosion, which has seen the 6-foot-5 Jamaican lower the 100-meter record three times, from 9.74 to 9.58, "you have a lot of athletes who've passed the 'wow' factor, the shock factor of, like, a 9.85 or 9.6 or even 9.5," Gatlin said. "And they're looking at it like, 'Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.'"
Still, the Rip Van Winkle of track, who woke up from his doping ban in a completely changed world, said he doesn't think anyone could have imagined Bolt's times back in 2004.
"You'd have some people say, 'You know, somebody could run 9.5,'" Gatlin said, "but they could never tell you how."
Now everybody knows. Gatlin even had a historical analogy. Decades ago, he said, "it was so improbable to send rockets into space. And now it's like, oh well, every other month we're sending things above the atmosphere to observe stuff."
It hasn't exactly been a rocket ride for Gatlin, but these days, the man who fell to earth seems to be enjoying his journey back into rarefied air.