Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Tyson Gay – Go Back to the Future


Since June 24th, the question that I have been asked the most is: what do you think is going to happen with Tyson Gay? Because June 24th was the day that Tyson pulled out of U.S. Nationals due to injury.

It’s not the first time an athlete has pulled out of a meet because of injury, but I can’t remember when a “DNS” has caused such a stir. Not even when it was announced that Michael Johnson wasn’t going to be competing at the ‘97 Nationals was there this much interest. And Johnson’s withdrawal was on the heels of the ‘96 Olympics where Johnson won the 200/400 double – the 200 in a WR 19.32 that would last until Bolt and Beijing!

Of course Johnson’s injury was the first in his career as far as most fans were concerned. Many had forgotten, or hadn’t been aware, that he had had trouble with injuries earlier in collegiate portion of his career. With Tyson, the public is aware of a string of injuries over the last few seasons that have impacted his participation in several “big” meets now.

Injured at the Olympic Trials (hamstring), taking him out of the 200 and impacting him in the 100 in Beijing – he was able to come back in time but was not 100% and bowed out in the semis. Not 100% in Berlin (groin) restricting him in the 100 and causing him to withdraw from the 200. And now unable to compete in the 100 semis/final at Nationals (he had already stated he would not be running the 200 which in retrospect was a sign) and out for Daegu.

A lot of high profile injuries and withdrawals from a man that has also had a lot of high profile success. He’s the American Record holder in the 100 at 9.69 – only once has any human run faster (Bolt’s 9.58 WR). He’s #2 American and #3 all time in the 200 at 19.58 – in spite of the fact that he’s only run it 5 times in the last three years, six counting the street race where he ran a WB 19.41. And he’s the only person to ever run sub10, sub20, and sub45 having run 44.89 in the 400 last year as part of his early season preparation. He’s run sub10 legally 29 times (7 times under 9.80), and sub20 15 times.And in spite of all the injuries he was the double sprint gold medalist in Osaka (‘07) and World silver medalist in the 100 in Berlin (‘09). Oh, by the way, he is the man that took down Usain Bolt in 2010!

Those accomplishments are why there is such anguish when the injuries arise – and why so many people are now asking “what is going to happen with Tyson Gay”! He is the American answer to Usain Bolt – the man we want leading us into international battle. When he is in the blocks we know we have a shot at victory. But, and no slight to the rest of our sprint team, when he is unavailable our sprint squad takes a huge hit. So almost daily now for almost two weeks I’ve been asked: what do you think about Tyson?

Well, after much thought, I think Tyson must go back to the future to have further success. What does that mean? It means that often to improve the future we must study the past. History is important because through history we can learn – from successes and from failures. Which is why I referenced Tyson to another great sprinter in the second paragraph up above – Michael Johnson. Because Johnson was a sprinter with great potential, who suffered from many injuries in the late 80’s (a period of his career that most fans have forgotten).

In Johnson’s early days at Baylor he was a 100/200 sprinter – good enough to run 10.09 in the 100. But running the 100/200 his body kept breaking down on him. Johnson, however, had also shown the ability to run the 400 having run some tremendous relay splits for Baylor as part of their early 4x4 legacy! His coach, the great Clyde Hart, convinced him to move from being a 100/200 doubler to becoming a 200/400 doubler – and the rest as they say is history. Johnson went on to stay relatively healthy through the rest of his career (a career that extended into the New Millennium); win multiple gold medals in three Olympics and five World championships; and set records that lasted well over a decade – he’s still the 400 WR holder as well as a member of the WR 4x4. Not bad for a man who had difficulty staying healthy at one time!

So, what does that history lesson mean for Tyson Gay? My interpretation is that he has to find a way to relieve the competitive pressure off of his body. And for that I also think he needs another history lesson. Those of us that started watching this sport before the year 2000 remember a time when sprinters actually competed more like distance runners – they peaked primarily for the Majors! When you look back at the careers of the gold medalists, record setters, and sprinters with stellar/long careers prior to the year 2000 they all have one thing in common – the ability to “peak” when it mattered.

If we go back to let’s say “Post Boycott” Majors (major boycotts in ‘76, ‘80, and 84) we have a string of great sprinters with long careers, including Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith, Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell, Linford Christie, Donovan Bailey, Jon Drummond, Ato Boldon, Maurice Greene, and Frank Fredericks. In contrast to sprinters that have come along since 2000, they competed more often, but had a lot fewer injuries.

In my opinion this was due to the fact that their competitions were a part of their preparation for major meets – National Championships, Worlds and Olympics. Not that they didn’t take other meets seriously. Theirs was time of rivalries, and they actually had them because they went head to head much more often, and they took them very seriously. It’s just that the majors were treated as the “Money Meets” – the ultimate meets – so you made sure you were at your best at the majors.

That “philosophy” began to change in the last decade. After Asafa Powell’s 5th place finish in Athens (‘04) he came back with a vengeance in ‘05 shooting for the WR early in the season to send a “shout out” to the competition, and the World to say that in spite of his placement in Athens he was the man to beat. In retrospect he also sent another message to the competition – running at that level every week can be dangerous to your health – as shortly thereafter he went down to injury and missed the ‘05 World Championships!

Ah, but sprinters are a competitive lot, and Americans (lead at the time by Justin Gatlin) were determined to get “our” WR back. So having won double gold in Helsinki in ‘05, Gatlin went WR hunting in ‘06 – the same year another young sprinter was cutting his teeth in the 100 (Tyson Gay). Gatlin began running “major level” races every week – tying the WR prior to his well publicized suspension. The second half of the season saw Powell continue the “major level” trend as he twice more tied the WR. And in both their wakes was Tyson Gay right on their heels being the competitor that he is.

The following year (‘07) found Gay replacing Gatlin as America’s top sprinter – and Powell’s chief rival – maintaining the “major level” sprinting every week. The culmination was his double victory in Osaka. But along the way, another sign was given as rival Powell once again had injury issues during the season.

The beginning of the ‘08 season saw even more fuel thrown on the sprinting fire as Usain Bolt then entered the 100 meter fray. First with a 9.76 in Kingston, then a 9.72 in New York. At that point there was no letting up off the gas pedal! Since then the expectation of both the athletes and the fans has been that when a sprinter steps on the track something ‘special” should be the result. Fast – something  heretofore in the 10.0/9.9 range – just wasn’t good enough. What was “spectacular” and “out of this world” when Ben Johnson did it in ‘88 (9.79) was expected to be run in Zurich and Lausanne and Rome and New York – and Tyson and Usain and Asafa were accommodating! In the past couple of seasons we’ve even seen close, if not similar performances, from athletes like Nesta Carter, Yohan Blake, Walter Dix, Mike Rodgers, Steve Mullings. and Ryan Bailey – in Eugene and Rieti and just about anywhere that sprinters race!

And not so coincidentally, in my humble opinion, we’ve also seen a rise in sprinting injuries. I’ve already discussed Tyson’s injury woes over the past few seasons, and talked about some of Powell’s. Powell’s season ended with injury last year, so did Usain Bolt’s. All of the sprinters in the above paragraph have missed parts of seasons, including this season, to various injuries. Powell and Carter went into this year’s Jamaican Trials complaining of injuries, and when interviewed after their 1,2 finish at U.S. Nationals both Walter Dix and Justin Gatlin complained of having to overcome injuries to make this year’s team!

Compare this to previous U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials where athletes like Carl Lewis, Mo Greene, Jon Drummond, Calvin Smith, Dennis Mitchell, Mike Marsh and others were always at their best and ready to roll! Now I know this seems more like a history lesson than an evaluation of Tyson Gay. But I think that the history lesson is VERY pertinent to the evaluation of Tyson – especially to his career as it moves forward.

You see, Mo Greene is remembered for the gold medals he won in Athens, Seville, Sydney and Edmonton – much less so for how many sub10’s he ran (over 50). Carl Lewis is known as perhaps the greatest track and field athlete in history – because of his wins in majors. Yet when you look back on his career fast times did not mark his career much outside of the ‘Big Ones” – where he often ran PR’s. Donovan Bailey and Linford Christie were both gold medal winners in the Olympics and World Championships – with sterling times in both. Yet outside of the big meets their marks were average. My point with all of these men is that they made sure that they were healthy, and ready to roll when the majors came along – and they competed much more often than today’s stars.

Now, I’m sure that I will be called “old fashioned”, or labeled by some as a “traditionalist” or some other similar terms. And perhaps that’s just the way the sport has evolved – it’s not sprinting unless we’re near the edge of human limits every time out! But in terms at looking at Tyson Gay, I am suggesting that perhaps he may need to compete more like a formula one car for a while instead of a dragster! That perhaps he should lessen the load a bit on his drive train and transmission during the season and make sure he doesn’t fry his piston rings before the big races.

I don’t think Tyson’s career has to come to an end just yet. Michael Johnson went another four seasons after his last big injury in ‘97 (where he once again put too much stress on HIS body taking on a 150 meter challenge). He went on to win gold in another World Championships and another Olympics as well as pick up the 400 WR along the way. I think that Tyson has the potential to do the same.

Tyson can run faster! Anyone that watched him run 9.69 coming from meters behind Asafa Powell (who ran 9.85) to finish meters up understands that. Tyson can win gold again because Bolt can be beaten and Tyson may be the only sprinter with the skill set to do it – again. But in order to do these things he must get healthy – so I hope he takes the rest of the year off to “get right”. Then – no offense to his coaches, managers, handlers – he’s got to manage his seasons better.

Only geeks like me remember that Silvio Leonard was the second man to run sub10 legally with auto timing (9.98); that Carl Lewis’ 9.97 in Modesto was the first legal sub10 run without altitude and Don Quarrie’s 19.86 was the first legal sub20 that wasn’t aided by altitude; or that Maurice Greene and Tim Montgomery both ran sub10 legally for the first time in the same meet (‘97 U.S. Nationals). No one cares what your time was in New York unless New York is hosting a World Championships or Olympics. Only us geeks remember or care. But the world remembers what you do in a Major. Because it’s champions that are remembered, not stat stuffers.

Tyson has proven that he can run fast, that he can put down great numbers. It’s now legacy time for his career. I believe that the difference for him between “woulda coulda shoulda” and “total medal count of “x”” will be his health. That if he saves the “stats” for Nationals/Trials, he will also increase his medal count and enhance his legacy. Then again, that’s just my opinion – but that’s what folk have been asking for. 

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