Tyson Gay achieved something remarkable when he ran the 400 meters in under 45 seconds two weeks ago in Gainesville, Fla.
With a time of 44.89, Gay became the only person to break 45 seconds in the 400, 20 seconds in the 200 (personal best: 19.58, 2009) and 10 seconds in the 100 (personal best: 9.69, 2009).
But what made the race really significant for the leading U.S. sprinter is that it showed Gay, 26, is back in top form after surgery last October to fix a chronic groin injury.
"I'm 100% in my recovery,'' Gay said during a Thursday teleconference. "The last time I was injury-free was 2006."
Gay said his fast 400 -- .68 seconds better than his previous personal best -- came "by accident. I hadn't done any training in spikes or speed work or block starts. It was amazing."
Even though Gay intends to keep his focus on the 100 and 200, the events in which he won 2007 world titles, he will keep running the occasional 400, with the aim of some day earning a spot on a U.S. 4 x 400 team for a major championship.
"I've always had it in me to run a great 400,'' said Gay, a Tennessee prep champion in the one-lap race. "But I never liked doing it. And my high school coach always told me that if I showed my [college] coach I could run it, I would never get to run the 100 again. That's why I shied away from it, because I like running the 100.''
His next 400 is Saturday at the Jamaica Invitational in Kingston.
"I'm actually nervous," Gay said of Saturday's race. "When I ran the 400 a couple weeks ago, it was at a small track meet and not a lot of pressure. I have a lot of professional athletes in this race."
(The field includes Renny Quow of Trinidad and Tobago, the 2009 world bronze medalist at 400.)
Gay is running 400s this season to build strength and test his groin before returning to the short sprints. He may run the 100 against Jamaica's Usain Bolt at the June 12 Adidas Grand Prix event in New York.
It was at that meet two years ago that Bolt set a world record in the 100 and began to run away from his competition at that distance and the 200, both of which he won in a rout at the 2008 Olympics and 2009 world championships.
Some of Bolt's dominance has been credited to his one-in-a-million combination of foot speed and the enormous stride length that comes from being 6-foot-5.
"It's just unfortunate that he is taller than me," Gay said. "It actually allows me to look at myself as being a great talent, able to run close to his time [despite] only being 5-foot-11. He has the turnover and the stride length. I have the turnover, but I can't cover as much ground. There's nothing I can do about that."
Gay insists he is not frustrated by having gone from world champion to one of those futilely chasing Bolt. Last year at the world championships, Gay lowered his 100 personal best from 9.77 to 9.71, only to be crushed by Bolt's world record 9.58.
"It's a huge motivational factor," Gay said of racing Bolt. "This is something the sport needs. It wouldn't be track and field without Usain Bolt. I'm very thankful he's running the times he is running, because they are just pushing me harder.''
Gay hopes that the drop in his 400 time will correlate to a drop in the 200, in which he also ran a personal best last year.
The 400 has taken on a strange dynamic this year after reigning world and Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. admitted last week to having tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid contained in a penile enhancement product Merritt said he had taken. It was yet another blow for a U.S. track program that cannot seem to escape having some of its biggest stars nailed for doping.
Asked if he were disappointed over having another big U.S. name sullied by doping, Gay said, "I've known LaShawn Merritt since he came on a visit to the University of Arkansas, and to me that's just not his character. I'm just shocked right now. Hopefully, everything comes out OK."
One of the defrocked 100-meter stars, Justin Gatlin, 28, is eligible to return July 24 after serving a four-year suspension for steroid use. Gatlin was 2004 Olympic champion in the 100 and 2005 world champion in the 100 and 200. In his absence, first Gay and then Bolt ascended to the top of world sprinting.
"I haven't thought about Gatlin at all," Gay said. "I think it is going to be very tough for him to be in the fitness he was in before he left."
Bolt, who lost to Gatlin in the 200 final at the 2005 worlds, had expressed a similar opinion in a teleconference last week.
"It is going to be very hard to come back from that [layoff] and compete against us because the intensity of the competitions is getting harder," Bolt said. "I don't look forward to running with any one person. If he comes back and I compete against him, I have no problem with it.''
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Tyson Gay runs in the 2009 Golden Gala meet in Rome. Credit: Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press