For Atlanta sprinter Christian Coleman, the comeback begins now

Atlanta's Christian Coleman at his finest moment: After winning the world championship gold medal in the men's 100 meters in 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Atlanta's Christian Coleman at his finest moment: After winning the world championship gold medal in the men's 100 meters in 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Beginning this weekend, Christian Coleman loses the title of world’s fastest person in exile. He’s freed to run in public again, his 18-month suspension for missing three spot doping tests in 2019 expiring Sunday. The Atlanta-born sprinter, who would have been the 100-meter favorite in last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo had he been clear to compete, now looks to regain his place at the apex of human speed.

Such rare speed is particularly fleeting. And the suspension ripped a huge hole in a precarious career. Still, all he lost during his suspension, Coleman, 25, is confident he’ll retake.

“I think I’ll have my opportunity to cement my legacy in the sport,” he told the AJC last week. “That’s the goal now: Train, be prepared and look forward.”

Coleman’s history of not making himself available for testing – under World Athletics Anti-Doping rules, athletes are required to make their whereabouts known daily and be accessible during a one-hour window each day for no-notice tests – caught up to him at the end of ‘19. Testers missed him at his home in Lexington, Ky., in early December of that year, and the so-called “whereabouts failure” was a third strike in a 12-month period. (Additionally, he had a fourth missed test earlier, in 2018). Originally assessed a two-year competitive ban, he earned a six-month reduction during an appeal to a Court of Arbitration for Sport. Still not enough to save his Olympics.

As he contested the punishment and then learned to live with it, Coleman kept silent about his situation. He has never failed a drug test. He has continued to be tested during the suspension, an average of twice a month he estimates. His father recalled one six-day period in January during which his son was tested three times. And even as the board of arbitrators asserted that there was no reason to believe Coleman was anything but careless, there were inevitable whispers that in missing the tests he must have had something to hide.

“For a while, I was kind of hurt about it,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk or be out there. It’s kind of an embarrassing situation for me because I’ve never been in any sort of trouble at school, never been suspended, had anything like that. To have people online saying all types of things, it was just better for me and my mental health to duck off and keep it low-key until it was time I needed to say something.”

“You do kind of go into a shell,” he said. “For the first time in my life this was something to not really be proud of. That part was tough. Eventually you come to terms with it and move forward and look forward to the future.”

Coleman hasn’t settled into the blocks for a race since winning the 60-meter sprint at the U.S. Indoor Championships in February 2020. He hasn’t competed in a major outdoor meet since October 2019 – the World Championships, which he won in a personal best time of 9.76 seconds.

As he found himself spending more time in Atlanta during the suspension, the challenge was to maintain an effective level of training back with his coach in Kentucky even with no competition to point toward. Coleman said he stayed true to the discipline that initially took him to the top of his sport and is fully involved now in a normal fall training schedule, with an eye toward returning to indoor competition in early 2022.

He was in Atlanta during last summer’s Olympics and admits he didn’t watch the 100-meter final live, when a relative unknown from Italy, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, took gold.

“By the time the Olympics came around I was kind of OK. I was fine, I had already accepted the cards that I had been dealt, moved on from it,” he said. “I was just in my own bubble, minding my own business and what I needed to be doing to be prepared when I get back.”

Still, there had to be some what-if in play.

“I feel like (Jacobs) earned it. If I was eligible to compete, I definitely feel like I could have won it. Nobody eclipsed my last PR (Jacobs won with a time of 9.80). That’s the beauty of track and field. Once you make it to that final, it’s anybody’s race, it’s who’s the best that day.”

Not all the down time was a waste. Unwelcome as it was, it still gave Coleman the chance to get off the track and field treadmill to work on his perspective. To, as he put it, “be around my family a lot more, be around people who don’t really look at me as an athlete or somebody they see on TV.”

“I found solace in that,” Coleman said, “knowing that there are a lot of people around me who love me and have unconditional support.”

In spending a lot of time around a niece who went from newborn to toddler in a relative blink, he said he gained a greater sense of the passing of time, and how the days can’t be squandered.

Yes, that includes being more responsible for heeding testing protocols. If that means setting up an alarm on his watch to alert him to update his planned whereabouts each day – as with everything else, there’s an app for that – then so be it.

Coleman obviously still harbors some resentment about the sport’s system of testing – “I definitely think the rules are a little bit stringent. I feel like over time the rules can adapt to real world situations because I feel at the end of the day this could have been avoided. The point of testing is to get drug cheats out of this sport not to try to catch people who miss tests,” he said.

Yet, at the same time, he acknowledges upon whom the duty to get it right ultimately rests – “You can point fingers and blame everybody but yourself. After reflection I have to do better and find peace in that.”

Track and field may not hold an abundance of intrigue for the American sporting public, but Coleman’s comeback surely tops a short list. After one missed Olympic cycle, can he race back to relevance again? Life moves fast, but never faster than in a sport parsed to the one-hundredth of a second. With his stride broken for nearly two years, can Coleman catch back up to the title of world’s fastest human?

One person in his camp is certain the suspension will only fuel him to be faster. Seth Coleman, Christian’s father, has talked about the experience turning the chip on his son’s shoulder – short (5-9) and slight, Christian often felt overlooked athletically – into a boulder.

“They have turned him into Godzilla,” he said.

COVID-19 has backed up the track schedule, and there is now an atypical parade of big meets open to Coleman – three world championships and one Olympic games between 2022-25. Beginning with July’s World Championships in Eugene, Ore., the first ever held in the U.S. The calendar is rich with potential.

Usain Bolt won gold at age 30. Asked where he is in relation to his prime, Coleman said, “I feel like I’m in it right now. I feel I’m at my best, and I’m pretty excited to see where I’m at, what I can do. Pretty excited to see where I am these next couple years. I’m grateful for the opportunity I have.”

The photo of Coleman that’s included in a montage of Atlanta celebrities greeting arrivals at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport remained in place throughout his suspension. Atlanta had not forgotten him. He figures now it’s his job to, “update the picture, add some medals, make it a little bit better.”

“I feel like everything that was taken from me will come back tenfold,” Coleman said.

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