YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Speed outside fast-food lane

U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay approaches the Olympic trials with a better diet, improved workouts and less pressure since he's not the favorite in the 100 at the Beijing Games

June 24, 2008|Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tyson Gay's mother was hardly surprised to hear that her son had dinner in a restaurant. After all, Daisy Gay Lowe said, he eats nearly every meal outside the two-bedroom furnished apartment where he lives alone while training in this Dallas suburb.

It was what Gay ordered in a Cajun-style restaurant that startled his mother.

"He ate that?" she said, after hearing that the leading sprinter in the United States had tucked into a dish called Grilled Mahi Mahi St. Charles, with the fish embellished by lobster, shrimp, sauteed mushrooms and spinach in a Dijon cream sauce, accompanied by dirty rice.

"Oh, my God, that's awesome," Daisy Lowe said, struck by the idea that, at age 25, her son finally may have swallowed the nutritional advice she -- and others -- had been giving him for years.

This is a guy who usually traveled overseas to compete with one bag full of training clothes and another crammed with potato chips, cheese nips, doughnuts, fruit roll-ups, chocolate chip cookies, gummy fruit snacks, and, in one near concession to healthy eating, granola bars. A guy who saw asparagus stalks on a plate and asked if they were zucchini.

There was a guilelessness about that question, a refreshing lack of pretense in exposing how green he remains about vegetables, a world champion who is not the least bit world-weary.

It also reflects a mannerly upbringing, full of love and empty of affectation, in a deeply religious, Southern family (his mother's e-mail address expresses devotion to Christ). In one five-minute phone conversation last year, Gay addressed the caller as "sir" a half-dozen times.

Beyond the track, where Gay moves at a pace that made him reigning world champion in the 100 and 200 meters, he is a soft, polite drawl in a sprint world accustomed to a steady diet of stars who talk as loud and fast as they run.

What he does is the most fundamental and seemingly uncomplicated of sporting challenges: get from here to there faster than everyone, whether the older sister he finally beat at age 14 or the world-record holder he crushed for the 2007 world title in the 100.

He was slow only in coming to the realization that strictly fast food isn't the right fuel for a fast man, a man favored to win both sprints at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials that begin Friday in Eugene, Ore., a man whose running should earn him more than $2 million this year from his shoe contract and other endorsements -- including one for McDonald's Southern-style chicken sandwich.

It wasn't until he ran four 100s and four 200s over six days in oppressive heat and humidity at the 2007 worlds that Gay really understood the battering his body goes through over the time -- barely two minutes altogether -- spent in those races.

"I had some marathoners I train do a workout of six times 60 meters, with three minutes rest between them, and they couldn't walk the next day," said 2000 Olympic sprint relay gold medalist Jon Drummond, one of Gay's two coaches. "The 60 did more damage to their bodies than long, hard runs."

Gay saw the stress of sprinting in stunning detail in the high-definition video a Japanese film crew shot last fall of him and Jamaica's Asafa Powell, the runners who had been expected to turn the Olympic 100 into a mano a mano.

The video shows Gay's left calf distorted by effort as he pushes off for a stride, then the right ankle bending dramatically as he lands on that foot, over and over again for the 45 strides it takes him to run the 100.

"It looks so painful," Gay said.

That helped him understand why Drummond advised him to eat just chicken, fish and vegetables, why the vitamins and mineral supplements and weightlifting Gay once shunned were necessary as preventive medicine to avoid having virtual pain become real, that he needed to bring more than just running skills to the table.

Last month, before he headed out to the track to prepare for his first 100-meter race of the season, Gay spent an hour at O's Personal Training in Arlington. He pumped 25-pound dumbbells, waist to shoulder, as if swinging his arms in a race. He did eight sets of sidearm and overhead pull-ups on a Body Master. Then leg raises. Crunches. Knees pulled to chest in an explosive motion like a start.

"I always thought if you lifted weights, did this stuff, you were going to get bigger and slower," Gay said. "I realized I had to do it just to be strong enough to get through a season."

The burden on Gay shifted about three weeks ago, when Usain Bolt, another Jamaican, lowered Powell's world record from 9.74 to 9.72 in a New York race. Gay was a distant second, even though his time (9.85) was just one one-hundredth off his personal best.

Bolt, 21, had been startlingly fast in two other races this spring, beginning his season the way Gay had a year ago. Now he faces the pressure of probably going to the Olympics as the world-record holder, and only one man in that position has won the 100-meter gold since 1988.

Los Angeles Times Articles