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Gatlin finding his groove as nationals approach

Justin Gatlin talked a big game before a recent race with the world’s fastest sprinter, stepping up his boasting simply to bait Usain Bolt.

Usually, that’s not a wise move. And yet the American backed up running his mouth by churning his legs as he blazed right by the Jamaican during a competition in Rome nearly two weeks ago. Bolt rarely gets caught — especially after an early lead.

With that, Gatlin believes he may have energized his adversary.

But Gatlin’s driven, too, since all the headlines after the race centered on Bolt possibly losing a step rather than Gatlin gaining ground on the Olympic champion.

Gatlin’s itching for a rematch at worlds later this summer on an even bigger stage and with more eyes watching. First, though, he has to earn his spot at nationals later this week in Des Moines, Iowa.

“To me, beating Bolt was just another check list, ‘All right, I beat him. I have to do it again and again,’” said Gatlin, who is considering running the 200 at nationals as well. “Bolt is one of the guys I have to get by to reach my goals of being dominant and winning big races.”

His first step is securing one of the three U.S. positions in the 100 — no easy feat given the talent-laden field that includes American record holder Tyson Gay, who’s fully healed from a surgically repaired hip that hampered him last season. Mike Rodgers, Ryan Bailey and Walter Dix are also in the mix for a spot at worlds in Moscow in August.

“Probably the most competitive nationals I’ve been to in my life,” Gatlin said. “We all have fast times to our names.”

But not everyone has beaten Bolt. Precious few have since the world record holder began dominating track’s signature race.

Bolt recently shrugged off any suggestion he’s slowing down, pointing out the loss to Gatlin “doesn’t say much.”

After all, it was just one race and he typically saves his best for the bright lights of major meets.

Then there’s this to consider: Each time Bolt has lost, he’s raised his game. When Bolt was beaten at the Jamaican Olympic trials by teammate Yohan Blake last summer, he roared back at the London Games for his second straight 100 crown.

“If anything, (losing) definitely lights a fire under him and his camp,” Gatlin said. “If you get beat not running very fast, like he’s usually known to do, it stings even more.”

The upset certainly caught the attention of Gay.

“A good boost (for Gatlin), but at the same time, everybody knows the world record holder wasn’t ready and that he’s waiting to perform on the big stage,” said Gay, who’s tied with Blake as the second-fastest sprinter on the planet after his finish of 9.69 seconds in 2009 (Bolt has the record of 9.58). “Until you dominate on the big stage, it really doesn’t matter.”

That June day in Rome will remain special for Gatlin, a highlight he ranks up there with winning gold at the 2004 Olympic Games and taking bronze in London last August.

When Bolt broke out of the blocks, it looked as if the race was over. After all, Bolt rarely gets a good start and when he does he never gets caught.

Except this time.

Midway through the race, Gatlin actually flew past him and then out-leaned Bolt at the finish to win by a hundredth of a second.

Only, the cameras began following Bolt around the track.

“I was confused. I think he was, too,” Gatlin said. “Then all of a sudden, my picture showed up on the scoreboard. I was so happy. I was clapping, thinking, ‘All right, we’re putting (winning times) down.’”

After the race, Bolt came over to Gatlin and they had a brief exchange.

“Told me good job,” Gatlin recounted. “Other than that, no real words were used between us.”

In the days following his win, Gatlin scanned papers and websites, just to gauge Bolt’s reaction.

“Said he wasn’t as motivated as he should be,” Gatlin said.

Not getting proper due from Bolt?

“There’s no such thing as a one-off race and you get your respect,” said Gatlin, a former star at the University of Tennessee who’s training in Florida under coach Dennis Mitchell. “You could come across the line as an Olympic champion and people are still going to doubt you as a fluke. I’ve been there before.

“You can come across the line as a world champion and people will doubt you as a fluke. Been there. This ball game is all about consistency and proving yourself day in and day out. You just have to keep trying to build.”

Not all that long ago, Gatlin was the sprinter everyone was trying to catch. He tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, leading to a four-year ban. Since his reinstatement on July 24, 2010, the 31-year-old has been steadily sprinting his way back into top form.

He knows there will always be skeptics, those who will question each and every performance. He’s made peace with that.

“You don’t have to like me. I don’t have to be the nicest guy on the block. You don’t have to cheer for me,” Gatlin said. “But know when I step on that line, I’m going to run you to that line.”

These days, he’s focused on his starts, feeling that’s the last thing he needs to sharpen to keep ahead of the field.

“My starts are good,” Gatlin said. “But my finishes have been the finishes of the old Justin. I’m so happy to have that back. Put the old Justin together with the new Justin and I think it’s going to be something impressive.”

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