Justin Gatlin, left, and Darvis Patton compete in a heat of the men's… (Steve Dipaola / Reuters )
Reporting from Eugene, Ore. — At 29, Justin Gatlin is a seasoned sprinter who felt like a rookie while winning his first-round heat of the 100 meters Thursday at the U.S. Championships.
Gatlin had won the Olympic 100 in 2004, the world championship 100 and 200 in 2005 and what looked like his second consecutive U.S. 100 title in 2006, when he was a superstar in the sport.
He had not run in a national championship since then.
"I don't feel old," Gatlin said. "I just feel a little rusty. I have a veteran mentality, but I'm actually maybe a rookie."
He hears his new coach, the venerable Brooks Johnson, stressing fundamentals Gatlin learned years ago and understands he needs to relearn them after four years away from competition. The gap came at the height of a career Gatlin can only hope will be extended by the enforced rest that resulted from a four-year doping ban.
"A break can be good for some people," said Shawn Crawford, 2004 Olympic champion in the 200. "Your body gets time to recover from the wear and tear of pounding yourself to the limit every day. I feel he can get back to where he left off."
Gatlin left off as a man who had tied the world record in the 100, a performance — like the 2006 U.S. title — that would be erased because of the doping offense. He came back to find the world of sprinting had changed.
"No one is scared to run fast any more," Gatlin said. "In 2004, '05, '06, there were guys in a race who were more of spectators. Now everyone wants a piece of the gold."
Gatlin vainly contested the result of the April 22, 2006, doping control that came back positive for testosterone. He claimed a masseur out to get him had rubbed a cream with the banned steroid into his body. He would draw double the usual steroid suspension because it was his second positive test, the other for an amphetamine in a drug prescribed for attention deficit disorder.
He would be written off as the latest doper in a sport that had become rife with them. His long association with the sulfurous Trevor Graham, coach of more than a dozen dopers, damaged Gatlin's attempts to convince anyone he had not knowingly taken the testosterone. He realizes that regaining his reputation may be harder than running fast again.
He has no shoe contract and is his own agent.
"Even in 2004, I had a lot of people who cheered me on and people who doubted," Gatlin said. "Now it's just magnified."
Gatlin returned late last summer, running in a few minor meets in Europe. The holier-than-thou promoters of the sport's major European meets still treat Gatlin as a pariah, even though he has served his time.
"I can't be angry for someone not inviting me to their party," Gatlin said. "I'm glad to run in any meets I can. I take each one as the finals of the Olympics.
"I'm grateful my competitors have been very gracious to me."
Maybe that is because they no longer fear him.
Gatlin's personal best for the 100 is the 9.85 seconds he clocked to win the Olympics. He broke 10 seconds officially for the first time since 2005 with a 9.97 while finishing sixth at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene this month. His time Thursday was 10.08.
"My coach told me we're going to work on speed later," Gatlin said. "The [idea] here was about getting the rounds together, getting me fit."
The semifinals and final of the 100 are Friday. The top three make the U.S. team for the World Championships in August.
In the women's 100, Carmelita Jeter won her heat in a 10.88-second sprint that looked more like she was coasting. She has the world's best time this season at 10.70.
Also advancing were Marshevet Myers, whose 10.87 was 0.01 off a personal best, and Lauryn Williams, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist.
Allyson Felix began her quest for a possible 200-400 double at worlds by winning her heat in the 400 — her less-accomplished distance — in 51.79. Also considering a 200-400 double is Sanya Richards-Ross, who as the defending world champion in the 400 already has a spot on this year's U.S. team. She ran her prelim in 52.02 and might be shutting down the 400 to focus on the 200 this weekend.
Jeremy Wariner also advanced easily in the men's 400 with a time of 45.94.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.