EUGENE, Oregon - Somehow Justin Gatlin keeps getting faster and faster.
Five years after completing a four-year doping ban that would have ended the career of most sprinters, the controversial American unloaded an eye-popping 19.57 seconds in the 200 metres at the U.S. world championships trials on Sunday.
At age 33.
Only four men, including world record holder Usain Bolt (19.19), have ever run faster.
Gatlin's coach, Dennis Mitchell, had told him to just go out and make the American team for Beijing by finishing in the top three.
But Gatlin had other ideas. "I wanted to go out and make a statement, and that's what I did," he said.
A fast start and a solid run around the bend, and he was gone. "I would say it's the most complete technically 200 I ever ran," said the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who reaped gold in the 100m and 200m at the 2005 world championships before his 2006 positive test for the banned steroid testosterone. "It hurt," he said of Sunday's race, but "I hope I can do better than that." He chucked when asked how fast.
Someone even asked if he could threaten Michael Johnson's 1996 American 200m record of 19.32 seconds. "Growing up, to even speak of a 19.3, that's Michael Johnson," Gatlin said. "You can't even say the words that you look up to that, or look up to him, 19.3 was something unfathomable."
Can it be duplicated by an American? "I'm going to go out there and give 100 percent effort every time I have an opportunity to do so. If 19.3 is in the scope then I'll go for that," Gatlin said. "But right now to even think about that, I have to think about the great Michael Johnson and what he's brought to the track and field world. I'm just honored to be able to say I'm on that short list of Americans who have run that fast."
Ordinarily Gatlin, the year's fastest at 100m and 200m, would be looked at with awe for his accomplishments.
But his two doping suspensions - he was banned for a year in 2001 after testing positive for an amphetamine contained in attention deficit disorder medication (ADD) he had taken since a youth - have left some, especially Europeans, calling for his banishment from the sport.
Yet there he will be, taking on Bolt in the 100m and 200m metres in August's world championships.
They have not met since 2013 but with Bolt underperforming this spring and summer, Gatlin has become the man to beat, at least in the 100m.
Asked if the worlds were ready for him, controversy and all, Gatlin said, "I don't know.
And at this point in time all I can worry about is myself."