All around the 124th Penn Relays, Justin Gatlin saw reminders of the thing his mind and his body refuse to acknowledge.
Wallace Spearmon, once a contemporary on the track, was a coach for Gatlin’s victorious USA team in the 4×100 on Saturday at Franklin Field.
On Friday, former NFL receiver Willie Gault, who preceded Gatlin as an elite sprinter at the University of Tennessee, returned to the Relays for the first time since 1983 and competed in masters men’s 55-and-over races.
Gault jokingly asked Gatlin when he was going to join him in the masters competition.
Still, the biggest reminder of his age, which is 36, was of Gatlin’s own doing.
While taking a photograph with a young fan after his race, Gatlin asked the girl how old she was. She said 6, and then Gatlin told her of how he first met Voorhees native and 2016 Olympic gold medal-winning relay sprinter English Gardner at the Penn Relays when she was an 8-year-old fan.
“Now, she’s my teammate,” Gatlin said.
For the average person, 36 years old is the prime of life, but for a world-class sprinter, it is near ancient.
The thing is that Gatlin has defied all the standards.
He is the reigning IAAF world champion in the 100 meters, having defeated the now retired Usain Bolt last August in London. He was the silver medalist to the legendary Bolt at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Last week Gatlin posted a time of 10.05 seconds, which ties for the fourth-best in the world this year.
Nothing says he’s losing the race to Father Time just yet.
“It’s a scary thing to think about retirement as an athlete,” said Gatlin who is the last American male to win an Olympic 100, at the 2004 games in Athens. “It feels like a part of you is going to die because you’ll never be able to run again at the level you’ve run.
“You’ve worked from as a youth to get to this point, be at the top of the mountain, winning medals for your country. Then one day it’s going to be gone.”
That day will come – sooner as opposed to later. But as he nears his 20th season of top-level competition, he pushes on.
“No, no, nope,” Gatlin said when asked if he ever thought his world-class career would be approaching 20 years. “I’m just enjoying life. Each year, I have to figure out how I can be a better Justin. I still work on tweaking my start, having top-end speed, helping my teammates get better so they can help me.”
Gatlin said that while he never considered himself the leadership type, he is embracing the role as the wave of USA sprinters are working with him and asking advice.
“I think my nature is to want to help,” Gatlin said, “I never looked at myself as the leader type, but if they ask for help I will. I don’t want to have grudge matches. I know how hard you have to work to become a professional athlete. I would never want to take that from somebody. You pass your knowledge on, and then you go out there and may the best man win that day.”
Gatlin does not dwell on the end, but he knows how he wants it to look. If he were to win at the 2020 Olympics, he would eclipse Linford Christie (32) as the oldest individual sprint gold medalist by more than six years.
“Someone who has the champion mentality never wants to just fade into the abyss, get fifth or just be on a relay,” Gatlin said. “I want to be able to go out on top.
“The [2020 Olympics], I want to line up, have that gun go off, get out in front, cross the line to hopefully make history. I go out on top and leave my spikes out there on the track.”