Justin Gatlin has much to do before he can begin designing the dress, the evening gown he promised to a Miss Tennessee pageant hopeful. For now, he said, his life is all about sprinting. He wants to back up his 100-meter victory at last year's Olympics. He wants to chase the 100 world record, set last week by Jamaican Asafa Powell. He intends to perform well at this weekend's U.S. track and field championships in Carson, Calif., setting himself up for success at the world championships in August.
He is not, he said, even thinking about the dress.
Well, maybe just a little.
"It's going to be burnt orange," he said by phone from his training home in North Carolina this week, noting the reddish hue in the pageant hopeful's skin, "with a little shimmer to it."
The color and shimmer are not all Gatlin has imagined for the design he promised by October. The gown already exists in his mind, and he's eager to provide a sneak preview, so you'll have to excuse him if he gets a bit technical.
"She wanted a belt across the midsection, but she has really nice tone to her stomach, so I thought I would give her a belt but make it see-through," he said. The dress "will be slightly off of her shoulders, sliding down to the middle of her cleavage. In the back, a train will start at the top of her thigh and come down. . . . "
Gatlin -- we will interrupt him here -- is an avid artist who happens to run fast, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who can get equally worked up over flattering designs and fast times. He didn't begin to take track seriously until his junior year of high school. As a child, he liked to stand in front of an easel holding a paintbrush and wearing a beret, his mother, Jeanette, recalled during a recent interview. His charcoal-and-ink sketches adorn a room in his parents' home in Pensacola, Fla.
Gatlin turned down scholarships from art schools in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to accept a track scholarship from the University of Tennessee -- where he won six NCAA titles before turning pro after his sophomore season in 2002.
One of the biggest benefits of winning an Olympic gold? Getting an invitation to sit up front at Tommy Hilfiger's show during Fashion Week in New York.
"I like fashion," he said. "You've got to have a Plan B to fall back on. You can't run forever."
Gatlin, though, is just 23 and considered by many to be the nation's most promising track and field star. Named one of Ebony magazine's top bachelors of 2005, he is handsome, well spoken and, well, not obnoxious. As his agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, put it: "He's not like the other top sprinters. He's not brash, not abrasive -- but he's full of confidence."
That cool confidence helped Gatlin win one of the fastest and closest Olympic finals in history, finishing a thrilling race in 9.85 seconds.
"I had to prove to myself, and other people watching, that my time is now," he said. "I wanted to show people I was there for a reason."
After the Olympics, Gatlin appeared on CBS's "The Late Show With David Letterman" and a Wheaties box. He accompanied fellow sprint star Allyson Felix -- whom he describes as not his girlfriend but his confidante and sidekick -- to the Emmys. He attended a movie premiere and was a grand marshal in a parade. He bought a Porsche and a new home in Raleigh, N.C.
And then, quite suddenly, his Olympic fairy tale took a wrong turn. In early February, Coach Trevor Graham and his athletes in the Sprint Capitol group -- which includes Gatlin, fellow Olympic gold medal winner Shawn Crawford and a handful of other sprinters -- were booted from their longtime training home at North Carolina State in Raleigh. School officials complained to local news outlets that Graham's group was interfering with physical education classes and that Graham had never formalized a relationship with the university.
As a result of the dispute, Sprint Capitol had no track on which to train for 21/2 months.
The group conducted halfhearted practices at an isolated end of a city park, running on a grassy field. From February to mid-April, Gatlin said, they worked in conditions that schoolboys would find dreadful.
"We couldn't run the way we wanted to run," he said.
For reasons that are unclear, it was difficult for the group to find a new training home. Gatlin said "a lot of people were wishing bad for us . . . nobody was helping us." Eventually, Nike officials and Nehemiah, who works for the McLean-based Octagon management agency, stepped in, helping the group land practice time at North Carolina Central University in nearby Durham.
"I was very concerned," Nehemiah said. "At some point, I had to get involved. . . . I thought it was a travesty that Justin Gatlin didn't have a facility to train at."
Nehemiah said he didn't lay blame but reminded Gatlin he needed to "knock on the door and say 'may I?' and 'thank you' and 'please' " -- even, Nehemiah said, if others in his training group forgot such courtesies.
Graham, reached on his cell phone, declined to do an interview.
Despite the troubles, Gatlin did get ready to run fast, posting a blazing but wind-aided time of 9.84 seconds at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., on June 4. There, he topped Powell, who set the world record (9.77) 10 days later. That development, somewhat surprising so early in the outdoor season, tantalized Gatlin.
"Either it can break your heart or motivate you more," he said. "It motivates me more to step up and do what I have to do, because I think the world record should be brought back to America.
"I've always dreamed of having the world record, and I think the best time for me [to do it] is coming off of an Olympic year."
After chasing that record, and only after, will Gatlin dive back into work on the dress.