Denver: Just when Usain Bolt appeared so invincible, so untouchable, he was caught. And just when Tyson Gay looked as if he might never close the gap on the Jamaican sensation, the U.S. sprinter did precisely that.
With a stunning win in a 100-meter race last August in Stockholm, Gay erased some of Bolt's mystique, proving the world-record holder was actually mortal on the track.
Sure, it was just one race in a season with no major championships. And granted, Bolt wasn't at his best, shutting his season down a few days later due to a tight lower back. Still, a message was sent heading into 2011: Bolt does have some competition and it's no longer only against the clock.
"Look, Bolt's still the king and Tyson's still the hunter," four-time Olympic medal winner and track commentator Ato Boldon said.
"But as Bolt found out, it's a jungle out there and being the king of the lions is tough. Sometimes, when you get to the top, you need a little wake-up call. When Usain breaks his next record, maybe he'll look back and say, 'That whipping I took in Stockholm was the best thing.'"
Don't expect these two titans of track to face each other in the 100 anytime soon. Their first meeting in the sport's glamour event may not take place until the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, in late August.
To Gay, that seems like a natural setting. "A head-to-head matchup at world championships when all of us are healthy and fit is probably the best way to measure who is the best sprinter this year," the 28-year-old Gay said in an email to The Associated Press.
In the wake of the loss in Stockholm, Bolt made some significant lifestyle alterations. The fastest man on the planet cut down on his late-night partying hasn't even been out in two months, he said and switched from a fast-food diet to a more healthy one, bringing in a chef to cook for him.
"My coach encourages me to lead a professional life off track (as) well as on track," Bolt said in an email. "As I get older, I need to take good care of my body."
He's just 24 and hardly even into his prime track years yet. But Bolt realized that if he isn't on his game, isn't on top of his training, he can be tracked down. He can't rely on raw talent alone, even if it's served him so well this far.
"I always have respect for all my opponents and know that every offseason they go home and train even harder to try to get that No. 1 spot," said Bolt, who's scheduled to open his season with a 100-meter race in Rome on May 26 against countryman Asafa Powell.
"I am working hard to stay on top." In another era, Gay may have been track's prodigy, the sprinter earning all the headlines.
After all, he is the American record holder, running 9.69 seconds during a 2009 meet in Shanghai.
But his rise just happened to coincide with Bolt, who rewrote the records in the 100 and 200 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and shattered them again at world championships a year later in Berlin.
The time to beat in the 100 stands at 9.58 seconds, something Bolt chronicled in his book: "Usain Bolt: My Story: 9.58: Being the World's Fastest Man."
Bolt has dominated the sport over the last two years, making everyone else pretty much compete for second place. Then came the race last August.
Just like that, the unbeatable became beatable again. After the public address announcer asked the athletes to stand up from the blocks Bolt playfully rolling to the track, clowning around for the crowd — the sprinters coiled back into their stances.
At the sound of the gun, Gay flew off the line, getting out fast as he pumped his fists and puffed out his cheeks, never allowing Bolt to reel him in.
Gay won in 9.84; Bolt finished in 9.97. There was very little reaction from Gay after the win, almost a look of business as usual.
Later on down the track, after they had slowed down, few words were exchanged between Gay and Bolt, just a quick hug and an understanding: This was a rivalry again.
The performance gave Gay a renewed sense of confidence, showed him his training was on the right track. Yet he insists he doesn't structure his workouts with an eye on Bolt.
"What matters most is the pressure that an athlete puts on himself and how he handles that pressure," said Gay, who plans to launch his season this weekend at the Texas Relays as part of a 4x400 relay team with Jeremy Wariner.
"So far in my career, I am proud of the way I race in the big competitions."
A private person, Gay has kept a low profile this offseason. He's training in Clermont, Florida, with coach Lance Brauman. He's also working with his other coach, Jon Drummond, on technical aspects, such as trying to make his starting burst even more explosive, because that seems to be the blueprint for beating the 6-foot-5 Bolt.
"Everything's going well. He's training hard, doing the same types of workouts he's always done," said Brauman, whose sprinter will compete in his first 100 of the year at the Adidas Grand Prix meet June 11 in New York. "It's not like Tyson's not fast. He's the second-fastest human to ever walk on this earth."
Of course, Bolt is honing his start, too. "Hopefully I will be faster out of the blocks this year that is what I am working on!" Bolt said. "It's going to be a good year."
Especially with his bothersome back now in perfect working order. Just like the rivalry with Gay. "It is exciting when we race each other," Bolt said. "People talk about Bolt, Gay and Powell but I take everyone seriously. We all get on well off track, but when we step in the blocks it's business."