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Gatlin anxious for return to Olympic trials

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June 2, 2012: United States Justin Gatlin winning the 100-meter event at the Prefontaine Classic athletics meet in Eugene, Ore. (AP)

The last time Justin Gatlin took the stage at the Olympic trials, he was a kid on the brink of becoming the next big sprinter in track.

Those days seem long ago.

So much has transpired for Gatlin since the `04 trials, when he finished second to Maurice Greene and knocked off a college star named Tyson Gay to make the U.S. squad.

A month later, Gatlin captured the 100-meter crown in Athens. A year later, he was a world champion.

Then came his swift fall from grace.

Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, leading to a four-year ban and preventing him from defending his title in Beijing.

Now 30 and late in his career, Gatlin returns to the trials this weekend with almost a detached demeanor.

There's simply no time for a stroll down memory lane, only time to speed down his lane.

His biggest threats will be Olympic bronze medalist Walter Dix along with a familiar face in Gay, now a seasoned veteran with a surgically repaired hip. Up for grabs will be three spots for London.

For Gatlin, there's more at stake. This is another chance to restore his tarnished career.

"I owe my friends and my family a great show. I owe them a great comeback," Gatlin said in a phone interview. "I owe it to show the world that I am a God-given talent, and I will compete until I can't compete no more.

"I owe them a heartfelt show. Not just some entertainment, where I'm dancing around, but something that people want to watch, that's almost Rocky-esque. Something you want to root for and watch and down the road you can say, `I saw that."'

On the surface, Gatlin is treating his return to trials as nothing more than another race at another meet, vowing to switch off all emotional attachment. 

His approach is simple: Pack his bags, board the plane for Eugene, Ore., run three fast rounds and hopefully, just hopefully head back home to Orlando, Fla., with a spot on the team.

Simple as that.

Only, his facade soon cracks.

For a runner who wears his heart on his sleeve, hiding his true feelings doesn't come easy.

Indeed, returning to the trials after being away for nearly eight years means the world to him and chokes him up -- at least it will, he said, when he steps onto the track and looks around at all the fans.

"It's going to be magical," said Gatlin, who's also slated to run the 200. "This is the first race in a long time that I've been excited to run. Totally excited, not really scared or nervous."

He may actually be the one to beat, too.

After all, his time of 9.87 seconds at a race last month in Doha is tops among Americans this season. Not only that, but Gatlin held off rival Asafa Powell of Jamaica to win that race.

To Gatlin, the stellar time and victory over Powell served as proof that he was on the right path -- to possibly securing a spot for the Olympics and maybe mending his name in the sport.

He insists the positive test was caused when a massage therapist rubbed a testosterone-like cream onto his legs.

Believe him or not. He knows he can't sway people at this point, especially given his past ties to Trevor Graham, the former coach who was given a lifetime ban by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in helping his athletes obtain performance-enhancing drugs.

Long ago, Gatlin made peace with the idea there will always be skeptics who believe he doesn't deserve a second chance.

"But that (time in Doha) showed the world I'm a legitimate athlete. If that didn't prove I'm back or I've outrun my past ..." Gatlin said, his words trailing off. "I'm in a different place now, with a different coach and I'm much older, but I'm still able to do the things I've done before in the same fashion."

Last season was a warm-up act for Gatlin, his first full year on the circuit since being reinstated from his ban on July 24, 2010. He kept a rather low profile, preferring to blend in rather than stand out. He didn't want to make any waves.

But this season is a different story, especially with London so close.

It's show time.

This just might also be his last -- or at least best -- shot at making the Olympics.

He left track guru Brooks Johnson last November to train under Dennis Mitchell, a member of the 400-meter relay team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

"Brooks and I sat down and I explained to him that for me to be the premiere athlete I know I can be, and he knows I can be, I need training partners. I need someone to engage me," Gatlin said. "He agreed with me. He gave me his blessing."

Each day in practice, Gatlin now goes up against Churandy Martina of Netherlands Antilles, the sprinter who finished fourth in the 100 in Beijing.

"Obviously, it's been working out for me pretty well," Gatlin said.

Hardly a surprise, the field for the 100 at U.S. trials will be stacked and include notables such as Dix, Michael Rodgers, Darvis Patton and Trell Kimmons.

Oh, and there's also Gay. He showed at the Adidas Grand Prix meet two weeks ago that even with a mending hip he remains in the mix for a spot.

"That was an impressive race," Gatlin said. "Tyson's one of the strongest competitors that's out there. As long as his body holds up, he'll be in the race."

Gatlin's confident he will, too, as long as he keeps his emotions in check.

"I'm trying not to make it bigger than what it needs to be," Gatlin said. "It's definitely the kind of sport where you have to stay on top of your game or the game leaves you behind.

"I just want to go out there and run as good as I can."