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Tyson Gay ready to turn page

CLERMONT, Fla. -- Tyson Gay is shaking his head and rolling his eyes and raising his voice in mock anger.

"See how they do you when you're old?" Gay asks loudly.

He's pointing at his longtime coach, Lance Brauman, who is meticulously buffing black marks off the gleaming white hood of a 2012 Dodge Challenger, a car that does not belong to the 29-year-old Gay.

The tricked-out muscle car is the prized possession of another of Brauman's trainees, 23-year-old former Texas A&M sprint star Curtis Mitchell.

"You don't see him washing my car," Gay says, "and it's got bugs, dents, scratches. That's how it is when you're old. You feel me?"

He proceeds to stomp around outside the track at the National Training Center, inquiring about people's ages: other sprinters finishing up workouts, people from his supplement company sponsor, EAS, and even Brauman himself. At every answer that's lower than Gay's age, he shakes his head again, drawing laughs from the sun-drenched gaggle of speedsters.

Gay isn't really angry, but he is frustrated these days. Every year since he doubled as the 100- and 200-meter world champ in 2007, injuries have forced him to curtail his training. He's never been healthy enough, really, to challenge for the title of world's best sprinter, the one he held before a tall young man named Usain Bolt emerged.

Last year's season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum caused him to shut down 2011 in July after he had posted an early-season 9.79 100-meter time on this track. In 2010, an ankle injury slowed Gay early in the season, but he went on to beat Bolt at Stockholm, the only time Bolt has lost since 2008. In September 2009, Gay ran an American-record 9.69 without being 100 percent; he needed groin surgery a month later. And, in 2008, Gay was headed for a showdown against Bolt when he strained a hamstring in a 200-meter heat at the U.S. Olympic trials and couldn't regain his form in time for the 100 in Beijing.

So far this year, it's the same story, with small injury setbacks (an adductor problem, and inflammation near his pubic bone) slowing his training and forcing him to focus on the 100 and forgo an attempt at the 200.

Is it age, the strain of sprinting on the human body, or just bad luck?

"I think it's a little bit of all three," he says. "But a lot of times, I didn't know there was this much bad luck in the world, you know what I mean? I mean, all these nagging injuries; I'm not getting hit, I'm not getting beat up. I lift weights and I run, that's what I do. But it's been a learning experience."

Brauman, Gay's coach since his junior college days, sounds decidedly more optimistic. He says Gay is well ahead of schedule given that he has trained seriously for just four weeks and won't run on a track until this week.

"He's making progress every day," Brauman says. "We're on track with the plan we have. The only thing that matters this year is the Olympic trials and the Olympic Games, and we're on pace to do really well there."

Taking things slowly is not easy for the only man in history to break 45 seconds in the 400 meters, 20 seconds in the 200 and 10 seconds in the 100. Gay says he feels a responsibility to compete well, not only to his family, but also his sponsors, including EAS, which allowed reporters to peek in on his training last week.

But Brauman says it's necessary to hold Gay back because he's so competitive.

"We keep preaching patience," the coach says. "That's why his workouts are at a different time than the rest of the group, so he doesn't get caught in a situation where he's trying to amp it up when his body's not ready to do it yet."

Gay has loved to race since he was a little kid, and can't resist when he's on a track next to other talented runners.

"Being out here with a lot of younger athletes, watching them develop and mature, it's keeping me on my toes," he says. "I do a lotta trash talking to keep me motivated, to keep me to not want to lose. I like my training partners, but I want to keep that fire, and I have to be sharp. I'm running with guys who are talented, who will probably make the team, who will challenge for medals and records."

So, for now, talk is all he's allowed to do. He doesn't like it, but a sprinter with Gay's injury history needs to think of the long run. And Brauman thinks the labrum surgery provides a long-term fix.

"Everything can probably be traced back to that hip labrum he had repaired in July," Brauman says. "That hip joint was loose, so that leg was coming through in a different motion than what it's mechanically supposed to. You were putting your stress loads on other points of the groin, abductor, adductor."

This time, they think they've found the source of the problem, but they're taking no chances. Gay may not race before the Olympic trials open in late June. Brauman doesn't believe that will be an issue.

"If you look at his record over the last eight to 10 years," Brauman says, "any time he's been put on the track, he's raced fast."

And who knows. With only a few fast races on his plate combined with good timing and being injury-free, Tyson Gay may have some people lining up to detail his car for him this August. No matter how old he feels.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.