What Was Really Bugging Tyson Gay

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Peter Read Miller / Sports Illustrated

USA sprinter Tyson Gay.

At the U.S. Olympic trials in late June, Tyson Gay looked like he was destined to be the greatest sprinter of all time. He broke the American record in the 100m and even finished the final in 9.68 seconds, the fastest time in human history. (A strong tailwind, however, nullified the world record.) Then, a week later, he strained a hamstring while trying to qualify for the 200m race.

While rehabbing, Gay gave signs that all was well. But below the surface, things weren't quite right, as Gay battled the demons of doubt. A day after his disappointing 100m sprint (he failed to qualify for the finals), Gay sat down with TIME's Sean Gregory near the Bird's Nest. At some points visibly despondent, at other moments upbeat, Gay revealed the stumbling blocks on his rough road to Beijing.

TIME: Walk us through your schedule after you strained your left hamstring on July 5.

Gay: After the trials, I went home to Texas for about three days. Then I went to Germany to see the doctor [Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfarth, who treats many track and soccer stars in Europe] about my hamstring. And I didn't do any running for almost three weeks. No running at all. That fourth week, maybe, I tried to do some jogging, some drills. So basically for a whole month I went through a lot of mental stress, trying to stay positive and trying to figure out why this happened. The woulda, coulda, shoulda. Stuff like that.

Talk a little bit more about the mental stress.

When something is bothering you mentally, it can definitely weigh on you physically. And the mental stress was like, Why did this happen to me? I'm in the best shape of my life, this is the biggest stage of the Olympics, why aren't I 100% like everyone else is? I was really upset about that.

Yesterday, after the qualifying heat, you blamed your lack of fitness for the bad race.

I don't think [the injury] really just affected my fitness level. I think missing races and not having any rhythm, you know, being around the crowd, walking into stadium — I missed that part of it as well.

How important is the rhythm?

It's very important. When you race against your competitors, you get rhythm. When you run the 100, you get rhythm. You need races for practice. When you get that, man, it can take you a long way. I'm used to it being that when I take 15 steps, I know I'm in the race. My body knows it. And my muscle movement didn't really have that. Before that, I had a rhythm. I didn't even have to look, everything was in synch.

You've obviously been through a tough time. Do you have any advice for people dealing with similar stresses?

I think you just have to pray, man. I understand that some people don't want to be outspoken about their beliefs, but that's what I do.

I tried to read some positive books. You know, stay happy. Watch a movie. The doctor in Germany told me, you can't sit around doing nothing. That's going to weigh on you the most, when you're not doing anything. So it was more like, do something else to make it look positive. I have to lift weights to keep my body strong. So: lift. Keep it strong.

Did you ever feel sorry for yourself?

Yeah, I played the pity role. I said why me? I know that when I went to practice, I was running slow. I was running times that were like college times, high school times, while trying to get back into the groove again. I'm an indicator runner — meaning, every time I run a 150m in 14.9 seconds, it's 'OK, I'm ready.' So when I came back from the injury, and Drummond [Jon Drummond, his coach] came to help me in Germany, I did some 200s in 24 seconds, 23 seconds, 22 seconds [American Michael Johnson holds the 200 world record, which is 19.32 seconds]. I ran a 150m in 16 whatever, and it was like, oh my gosh, I'm really running, but the speed wasn't there. Oh my gosh.

Did you watch Usain Bolt's world-record-breaking run from the stands?

No, I was in a back room [at the Bird's Nest]. You know how sometimes you watch something, but then you really don't get a whole perspective until they show the instant replay in slow motion? That's when I got that wow feeling. I watched the race, but I couldn't see what he did. It just looked like he won by a lot. Then they showed the replay, and I saw him look around a couple of times and hit his chest. I started thinking, those are hundredths of a second he could have lost. I was in awe. Because he just, I don't want to say totally toyed with, seven of the best athletes in the world.

Were you surprised he started celebrating so early?

I was surprised. He's 21 years old. The guy is young. And he's always joking, playing, never taking anything too seriously. You've gotta have fun. Obviously, people have just never seen anyone win by such a margin, or celebrate like that in the 100. When people run the mile, the 800, the walk, they put their arms up when they cross the line. But it was just amazing, because that's a 9-second race, and you don't think anyone can celebrate in a 9-second race.

A lot of people are talking about last night. You know — what do you think of his performance, was it disrespectful, things like that. But, hey, the guy is 21 years old, he won the Olympics by a lot. I definitely understand his excitement. That's how he shows his excitement.

Do you think you can get back your title of "world's fastest man?"

I think so, because I believe it. There wasn't any doubt in my mind, until I missed the final, that I was the world's fastest man. You can 'coulda woulda shoulda' Bolt's race. If he had run to the line, what he could have done? This is going to sound weird, but it's only 9.69. You know, it's not 9.58. Or 9 forty-something.

You've been through a huge range of emotions over the last 24 hours. What has this whole Olympic experience been like?

It's the best experience I've ever had in my life. Even though I didn't get to the finals or get a medal in the 100, it's still the best experience ever. I've never had this much fun. I lost, I didn't get a medal, and still, people want to take pictures with me [Gay waves to a gawking crowd outside a window]. People still respect you, people tell you you're still the fastest. My family still supports me. I'm sad inside. But not getting that medal didn't ruin my whole Olympics.