The heaving, uncontrollable sobs have occurred twice for Justin Gatlin. Once, for a failed drug test in his prime that led to a stay in track’s version of purgatory. The other, over a .01-second slipup that he’ll never get over.
Say this much for the controversial sprinter: His life has certainly been filled with peaks and valleys, which he reveals in an hour-long documentary titled “Rise Again — The Justin Gatlin Story.”
Gatlin reflects on his ascent to the top, a fall from grace after a 2006 doping ban that left him so depressed he contemplated wrapping his car around a tree and a return to the spotlight to become Usain Bolt‘s biggest adversary. Not to mention a race Gatlin would give anything to have back — the 100m at world championships in 2015, when he leaned too soon and Bolt beat him by .01 seconds.
“Life is fun. And it’s beautiful. But it’s cold. Cutthroat. Nasty,” Gatlin said in the opening sequence of a movie produced by Andrew Brereton and screened Thursday in Gatlin’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida. “I’ve witnessed both.”
Gatlin’s purpose in making the film was simple: Show fans and detractors what makes him tick.
“It’s a window into that kind of realm that no one has ever seen,” the 35-year-old Gatlin said in a phone interview. “A way for me to get that rawness out there.”
Following two gold medals at the 2005 world championships, Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone at the Kansas Relays in 2006. His dad signed for the certified letter from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and called his son.
The father simply comforted him.
After a long stretch of arbitration and court hearings, Gatlin received an eight-year ban that was later reduced to four.
During his exile, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion went through a wide range of emotions, including thoughts of suicide. He struggled to find work (he tried out for several NFL teams). He collected unemployment. His weight even ballooned so much that when he did return, he was kiddingly called “Dough Boy.”
“At the top, I was flying high. I didn’t understand what it meant to be down and out,” Gatlin said in the film. “What I went through in those four years, it makes me, in a way, a poster child. I’ve been to the top, to eat filet mignon, to have sweets, traveling around the world, having everything at your fingertips, to being embarrassed just to walk around in society.”
That’s exactly the emotion Brereton wanted to capture.
Brereton and his company, Neomotion Films, traveled around with Gatlin, shooting more than 80 hours of footage. The crew interviewed Gatlin’s parents, a string of coaches from over the years, agent/renown hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, friends and family members.
The film producer was initially drawn to Gatlin’s story because usually when convicted dopers serve a lengthy ban, they don’t come back. If they do, they’re rarely faster than what they were. Before his ban, Gatlin tied a then 100m world record of 9.77 seconds, a run that came weeks after his positive test and has since been erased.
In 2015, Gatlin went 9.74.
“That throws a bigger monkey wrench into the situation, because people don’t know how to react,” Brereton said. “Their first reaction is like, ‘OK, something’s not right. He already has the history. I don’t believe it.’ But I always say, ‘Why don’t you believe?’
“They say, ‘Because it’s never been done before.’ I say, ‘So that means it can’t be done?’ … Track is interesting like that.”
Some of the movie’s intriguing scenes:
— As a kid, Gatlin used to outrace his friends — him on foot, them on bikes.
— His first love was hurdles in high school. He was so fast that one time in a 300m hurdles race, he opened up a big lead, saw a teammate fall down, went back to help him up and still went on to win the competition.
— Gatlin talked to kids all over the country about anti-doping on his return to track from his ban. “Some say he didn’t apologize?” Nehemiah said. “That was his apology tour — to all these kids that looked up to him.”
— At the starting line in races after returning from his ban, Gatlin said: “People saw me, and the look in their eyes was like they saw a ghost.”
The race that haunts him is that 100 showdown with Bolt in ’15. Gatlin thought that was his moment in Beijing, his race to win.
It wasn’t. He broke into tears on the ride back to his hotel.
“I could’ve run that race, that sloppy race, anywhere else in the world and still won,” said Gatlin, who captured Olympic bronze at the 2012 London Games and silver four years later in Rio de Janeiro. “I allowed myself to get beat and I beat myself. That’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Throughout the movie, Gatlin kept his composure. This, though, brought him to tears: Talking about his young son.
“In kindergarten, he’s drawing pictures of me on top of podiums, with medals on,” Gatlin said. “He loves me for me. He’s so proud of me. … It’s way better than being on top of 100 podiums.
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