It’s about 3 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2004, and little Lauryn Williams staggers back into athlete housing at the Athens Olympics.
Williams, a 20-year-old who would speak at her University of Miami business school graduation four months later, had that night placed second in the marquee women’s event of the Olympics — the 100m final — in her first individual event at a global championship. And then gone through hours of interviews, drug testing and all-around congratulations.
When she finally finished all that, she found Justin Gatlin. Gatlin, also an Olympic rookie, also competed at the Athens Olympic Stadium that night, winning his 100m quarterfinal heat. Gatlin would take gold in the event and be crowned the world’s fastest man about 18 hours after his encounter with the dog-tired Williams.
Williams laid out on the floor of their compound. Gatlin spoke.
“How are you feeling?” Gatlin asked.
“Well, I lost,” Williams said.
(This was a reversal of her immediate reaction on the track, when she could be heard yelling, “I’ll take the silver medal,” seconds after her name flashed on the scoreboard below that of Belarus’ Yulia Nesterenko, who beat Williams 10.93 to 10.96 seconds, the margin about the same as their difference in reaction time. Nesterenko had never broken 11 seconds before the Games, then did so in all four rounds in Athens, and never came close to doing so again.)
“You’re No. 2 in the whole world,” he said. “You’re like one of the best athletes ever. What are you talking about?”
Williams was still lying on the floor.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,'” Williams recalled last week. “I definitely remember it very specifically, like it being very late and a lot of people still being up when I got back, and him really lifting me up in that moment.”
Maurice Greene was 30 years old in Athens, in what would be his Olympic farewell. He took 100m bronze behind Gatlin and Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu in a failed bid to join Carl Lewis as the only men to repeat as Olympic champion in the event.
In Athens, Greene couldn’t help but notice the unflappable presence of the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 28 years — an 18-year-old named Allyson Felix.
“Nothing really fazed her,” Greene said, leaning back on a Manhattan hotel couch last week. “You just knew it was something special there.”
Felix, who had already turned professional, best expressed her poise to American viewers with calm, seemingly calculated responses in post-race interviews with NBC’s Bob Neumeier. Felix earned silver in the 200m on Aug. 25, matching Williams’ result from four days earlier.
“We were kind of like deers in headlights at the time, but we knew that something was changing,” Williams said last week. “There was a whole new brigade of us.”
Williams was speaking about not just herself, Felix and Gatlin, but of a larger group that debuted at the Athens Olympics and largely carried U.S. sprints through the next two Olympics.
Shawn Crawford, the 2004 Olympic 200m champion. Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400m champion. DeeDee Trotter, the 2012 Olympic 400m bronze medalist. Jeremy Wariner, the 2004 Olympic 400m champion.
Williams retired after London 2012, but everybody else is still competing. A large group of them could complete their Olympic careers in Rio, should they qualify.
Even Crawford, who had retired after missing the 2012 Olympic team but failed to take his name out of the drug-testing pool and was banned two years in 2013 for failure to update drug testers on his whereabouts. Crawford is planning to return once his ban is up in April, his agent said earlier this year, and Crawford is again being drug tested.
Gatlin and Felix are the headliners, the faces of U.S. men’s and women’s sprinting. Felix said last week that she and Gatlin hung out together in a lounge area at the Paris 2003 World Championships, when Felix made her global championship debut and Gatlin was there but not competing.
“We had both come on the professional scene right around the same time, and I think we were really just drawn into each other because we really didn’t know anybody else and everybody else was much older than us,” Felix said.
Their careers separated after Athens. Felix continued to be a global star, winning three World 200m titles and eventually her first Olympic 200m title in 2012. She won her first World 400m title this year and could go for a Michael Johnson-like 200m-400m double in Rio.
Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, served a four-year ban and returned to the sport in 2010. He gradually improved and the last two years has been running the fastest times of his career, drawing scrutiny at the advanced age of 33.
Gatlin said he and Felix were “like sidekicks” in 2003. They conversed together and with others at a USA Track and Field Hall of Fame ceremony in New York last week.
“Her journey that she went through, basically setting the trend for a lot of these high school kids to come out and turn pro, she really captured lightning in a bottle for a dream,” Gatlin said.
When Gatlin trained to come back to the sport in 2010, Greene was one of the previous generation of sprinters with whom he spoke.
“Why do you want to come back,” Greene asked him, “because people are going to talk a lot about you.”
Gatlin asserted that he would rise above the stain of his doping ban.
“He came back to prove it,” Greene said.
To those who question why he’s running so fast at a time when most sprinters are past their primes, Gatlin always says he feels younger because of the four years he was forced to take off from the sport.
“Maybe the time off did him a lot of good,” Greene said.
Eventually, Gatlin and Felix will step aside, either by choice or by being pushed out by another new group of U.S. sprinters.
“There’s a lot of kids,” Felix said. “There’s so much going on I don’t think we can name one person. We’re going to see that emerge. You have Kaylin Whitney [a 17-year-old who has broken 22.50 in the 200m each of the last two years], Candace Hill [a 16-year-old who ran 10.98 over 100m this year] and a lot of really young girls. They need time to develop before we crown them.”
Gatlin noted training partner Isiah Young, 25, who finished second to Gatlin in the 200m at last summer’s U.S. Championships, and Trayvon Bromell, 20, who shared the World Championships 100m bronze behind Bolt and Gatlin.
“[Bromell] is like a younger version of me when it comes to having a hunger for it,” Gatlin said, “but not realizing the magnitude of what you’re doing.”
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