It was 2005, and they were all young, fast and American; Jamaica was still just a Caribbean island with a nice sprint past. They were all in Helsinki for the world championships. Justin Gatlin, then 23, added world titles in the 100 and 200 meters to his 2004 Olympic 100 crown; Wallace Spearmon, 20, won a silver in the 200; and Tyson Gay, 23, a rising talent, took fourth in the 200. "We were young," says Spearmon. "We thought we could beat anybody." The trio seemed poised to maintain U.S. sprint dominance for a decade to come.
Reality has been different. Their collective résumé looks impressive: 11 world and Olympic medals. Yet their careers are defined by absences—Gatlin for a doping suspension (from 2006 to '10), Spearmon and Gay for repeated injuries—that have diminished their place in history. All have been swept aside by the stunning rise of Jamaicans Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell.
Yet now the three U.S. sprinters are all back chasing Olympic medals as the Jamaicans show just a hint of vulnerability. In June, Gatlin, who was suspended after a drug test found "testosterone or its precursors" in his system before he equaled the world record in 2006, won the Olympic trials 100 meters in 9.80 seconds. He has never run faster, excepting the 9.77 that fell during his steroid usage. "I was crying on the way to the starting line," says Gatlin. "That's how hungry I am."
Spearmon ran 19.65 in the 200 in 2006 (making him, at the time, the third-fastest American in history; he's now fifth), then went to Beijing, where Bolt won gold in a world-record 19.30 (he later lowered the mark to 19.19) while Spearmon was disqualified from bronze for running out of his lane. He recovered to take third at worlds behind Bolt in '09 but last year ran far off his best while fighting a tendonitis-like condition in his right foot. "I'm ready to get back to redemption," he says.
Gay won three golds at the 2007 worlds, but a hamstring injury ruined his Olympic year. In '09 he set the U.S. 100 record of 9.69, but that same year Bolt ran 9.58. Gay had surgery on his right hip in '11 and began training only two months before making the U.S. team behind Gatlin. A medal, Gay says, "would mean everything to me." There is pain in his hip, a reminder that the end of his career is near. London, for all three, is one last chance at promise truly fulfilled.