By Gene Cherry
(Reuters) - Even at age 35, Olympic silver medallist Justin Gatlin believes he is the 100 metres favourite at next month's U.S. nationals/world championships trials.
Younger runners have been faster this season, and nagging injuries have made this perhaps the most difficult spring ever for the Florida-based sprinter to train.
Yet Gatlin, in a telephone interview, said he is ready to be number one at the June 22-25 U.S. nationals in Sacramento, California, that will determine the American team for August's world championships in London.
"I would consider myself the man to beat," the four times 100 metres national champion told Reuters on Tuesday night.
"When it comes to trials and nationals I usually step up and am the dominant sprinter."
Track & Field News magazine agrees. The publication lists Gatlin ahead of collegiate star Christian Coleman and 23-year-old Ronnie Baker, the Prefontaine Classic winner and U.S. indoor champion, in the 100 metres.
Statistically, though, Gatlin does not rank among the world's top 20 this season despite being Usain Bolt's chief challenger in recent years.
He has dipped below 10 seconds once, a wind-aided 9.97 seconds in finishing fifth at last weekend's Prefontaine Classic, after being fourth (10.14) at the Doha Diamond League meeting and winning in Kawasaki, Japan (10.28).
"A chain reaction" of injuries are a major reason, Gatlin said.
Attempting to train with an ankle out of line led to calf injuries, which prompted problems with his quadriceps. Overcompensation there resulted in groin problems, said the 11 times Olympic and world championship medallist.
Not even in 2010, when he returned from a four-year doping suspension, has training been so difficult.
"This season is going to test my fortitude mentally and physically probably more than any other season," said the 2004 Olympic champion.
"I had to stop training over a series of 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. That's how far behind I was.
"It was not a straight three weeks but on and off. Parts of March and parts of April."
He is healthier now, but to avoid a setback, Gatlin said he would not race again until nationals, where he will declare for the 100 and 200 but likely run only the shorter race.
"I don't want to go and it be a dogfight, and I am fighting three rounds to make sure that I win or make the team," he said.
"I want to come knowing that I am the man to beat."
(Reporting by Gene Cherry; Editing by Hugh Lawson)