Justin Gatlin

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How many times can a person say they were able to meet someone they looked up to growing up?

In high school, I would try to imitate the pre-race rituals of my favorite track athletes like Jeremy Wariner, Shawn Crawford, and Justin Gatlin. I’d take Gatlin’s one step forward, wear his spikes (Nike SuperFly G5), and even mimic his stride (which didn’t work out too well for me because I’m not that tall, but whatever).

I still remember what I was doing, where I was, and who I was with when he won the gold medal in the 100m dash 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. I also remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard he had been caught with performance enhancers. I was upset, and I bet many of his other fans were as well. I didn’t want to believe that it happened.

Through the years, I’d occasionally search his name online to see if there was anything new happening. In 2010, I read he was coming back to race. I was excited to see him run again, but also felt a bit hesitant as I wondered whether he was going to be the dominant figure he once was.

Let’s fast forward to 2012…

Never in a million years would I have thought I was going to meet him in person. During last years Penn Relays I had the pleasure of meeting him. During our brief conversation I was able to build up the courage to tell him that I admired him growing up. I was afraid he’d think I was being cheesy or insincere, but I thought to myself, “When’s the next time I’ll have an opportunity like this?”.

I remember telling him how I used to mimic him in high school, and even how excited I was when he had started following me on twitter. He just laughed. He was easy to talk to and also very receptive and happy to hear what I had to say. That was easily the highlight of my weekend.

A few months later I went to the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. I saw him in the press area doing post race interviews. I joined the circle of journalists and started recording him. After his interviews were over, he called out to me, and we spoke briefly.

The best part about the whole thing was that he addressed me by name. That stood out because he meets so many different people at press events and other meets. The fact that he remembered my name meant a lot. Not only because I’m a fan, but because it shows that he cares and appreciates the support that he gets. You can’t say that about a lot of people, especially someone at his level.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had jobs where I’ve had the opportunity to meet and hang around pro-athletes and celebrities. Sadly, I’ve noticed that for most of them, talking to fans or doing interviews is almost like a chore. I feel like the entire track and field community appreciates the time in front of journalists and the support of their fans, which is pretty awesome.

I also enjoy what Justin has done for the track community since he came back. He partnered up with TrackNation to bring the fans and athletes closer via social networks. It has definitely caught on, its pretty amazing seeing high schoolers taking pictures of the TrackNation logo shaved in to their heads on Instagram and Twitter. I wish there was something like that while I was growing up, but I’m glad there is something now for the new generation of runners. It makes the sport more personable and builds a sense of community in a national and, hopefully one day, a global level.

– Jason Suarez