EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) - Soft-spoken and humble, American Tyson Gay seems so different from most modern-day sprinters.
He seldom raises his voice, rarely if ever makes bold predictions and generally keeps a low profile outside his passion for social media.
Yet, like the Thoroughbred horses that graze near his Lexington, Kentucky hometown, he can sprint.
No American has ever run faster. Not nine-times Olympic champion Carl Lewis, not Maurice Greene, the last American to hold the 100 meters world record.
Only Jamaican Usain Bolt stands between current Florida resident Gay and the cherished title of World’s Fastest Man.
Still, until he was 14 by his estimation, the likeable American could not outrun his older sister.
Now, as the London Games approach, Gay’s name is linked with Bolt, Jamaican world champion Yohan Blake, Asafa Powell and American Justin Gatlin as the men to watch in the Olympic 100 meters final on August 5.
What transpired in the intervening years is a story of speed, a seemingly never-ending string of injuries and the will to succeed no matter how painful the setback.
Thumb through story after story about the U.S. record holder and one wonders why the slender runner did not put away his spikes long ago.
Back problems, groin injuries, a strained hamstring and most recently a hip injury that required surgery and kept him out of competition for nearly a year have been roadblocks to the former U.S. collegiate champion’s success.
“I am really mentally strong,” Gay told Reuters. “And I keep on fighting.”
The determination amazes his agent, Mark Wetmore.
“He is mentally able to push his body beyond where a lot of people have told me he should,” Wetmore said.
Gay appeared destined in 2007 to be the world’s next great sprinter, winning gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters and 4x100 meters relay at the Osaka world championships.
But in Jamaica an extremely tall speedster many thought would become a top-notch 400 meters runner was winning a bet with his coach that allowed him to try the 100 meters.
Sprinting would never be the same.
Bolt, already a world junior champion in the 200 meters, swept away world records in both the 100 and 200 with dazzling performances in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 world championships, leaving Gay an afterthought in the public’s eye.
“It was like I didn’t even exist until I beat the world record holder,” Gay said after defeating Bolt for the first time in the 100 meters at a 2010 Diamond League meeting in Stockholm.
The two have not met since.
Gay looked ready to give Bolt a run for the gold in 2008 but after a splashy, albeit wind-assisted, time in the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials he strained a hamstring in the 200.
Gay was not fit in Beijing, going out in the semi-finals of the 100 while Bolt romped to three world records. The next year, at the 2009 world championships in Berlin, Bolt sent the 100 and 200 world records spinning even lower.
Silver medalist Gay created some excitement a month later when he roared down a Shanghai straightway in 9.69 seconds, a time only Bolt has surpassed.
Injuries have since tempered his career, the hip problems keeping him out of the 2011 world championships and delaying the start of his 2012 season until early June.
“I am still waiting for that moment when I don’t feel nothing,” Gay said before the U.S. trials where he finished second in the 100 meters with a time of 9.86.
“For me to start training in March and make the team is a beautiful accomplishment.”
Now it is a matter of staying healthy and running himself into top form.
Chasing Bolt and the world record no longer weighs as much on Gay’s mind as it once did. The competitor in him believes he still can run with the Jamaican but chasing the record is no longer an obsession.
“My mind was more immature,” Gay said of past years. “I was just thinking about the record.”
He paid a price, mentally and physically.
“My body wasn’t able to handle it,” the American said.
The focus now is to celebrate his birthday early with a medal in London.
“That would be very special,” said the softly-spoken speedster, who turns 30 four days after the London final. “That would solidify my career.”
“That is the only thing I am missing besides the world record. But records come and go.”
Reporting By Gene Cherry in Eugene, Oregon