ATLANTA (Reuters) - If U.S. Olympic gold medalist Angelo Taylor has a motto, it should be: “I’ll be back.”
Eight years ago, Taylor struck gold at the Sydney Games in the 400 meters hurdles, realizing a dream as a 21-year-old that he had been working towards since he graduated from high school four years earlier.
He also won gold in the 4x400 meters in Sydney and two years later he was U.S. champion at 400 meters. But his career went into a downward spiral through injury and legal troubles and it looked like it might never recover.
Now he is attempting to bounce back and take on a feat that nobody has previously achieved: to win gold in the 400 meters and the 400 meters hurdles at the Beijing Olympics in August.
“It’s going to be tough physically and mentally,” Taylor said in an interview. “No one has ever attempted it.”
The steps of Taylor’s downfall are easy to trace. Four years after his success in Sydney he made the semi-finals of the 400 meters hurdles at the Athens Olympics but failed to qualify for the final.
Shortly afterwards, doctors told him part of the reason. The pains he had been suffering in his shins — agony he had been trying hard to ignore — were actually stress fractures.
Their advice was a professional athlete’s nightmare: take a full year off.
Then, in 2006, he pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of two underage girls and was sentenced to three years’ probation. The sentence, his injuries and the fact that his sporting triumphs were far behind him, brought him low.
“I didn’t know if I would run track again because of the injuries...I lost a lot of respect among non-athletes. On the Web and on (athletics) chat groups they thought I was all washed up,” Taylor said.
By the time he got back to training full time he was also working full time, as an electrician. His job involved low-voltage work and installing data and telephone cables around Atlanta, where he had lived since childhood.
“It was tough mentally and physically. I was working an eight-hour job and even then I had to go training and then go home and deal with my two kids. I didn’t get much sleep,” Taylor said.
In fact the children, twin boys born around that time, helped him through, giving him a purpose when he could not train.
One turning point came for the 6-foot-2-inch (1.88-metre) runner when in January 2007 he signed with agent Kimberly Holland, who manages a stable of U.S. athletes as CEO of Icon Management.
“He didn’t have a contract at the time. He was working as an electrician. He said: ‘Lord, what am I going to do now?”‘ said Holland. “My concern primarily was that he’d been away (from the sport). We just built a case for him one meet at a time.”
Last year, however, he won world championship bronze in the 400 meters and gold in the 4x400 relay and that season ranked third in the world at 400 meters and sixth at hurdles.
Taylor won gold in the 4x400 relay in Sydney, though that medal has since been tainted by the doping admission of his team mate Antonio Pettigrew and bans for other team members.
The individual gold was the greater achievement, not least because it came running out of lane one, considered the toughest lane because of its tight turns.
“I had a great start. I was rolling. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. All I remember was the gun going off, the first hurdle and then coming off the last bend. I gave everything I had,” said Taylor, who still watches videos of the race.
“At the finish, I dropped to my knees and gave thanks to God. It had been a long year,” he said.
Taylor’s account plays down the drama of the race. It was the closest Olympic finish the event had ever seen. Taylor beat Saudi Arabia athlete Hadi Souan Somayli by 0.03 seconds with a time of 47.50.
These days Taylor trains full time, lifting weights, practicing hurdling and sprinting and doing some long runs too. In evidence of his versatility, he set a personal best in the 200 meters at a race in Martinique in May.
He looks forward with a maturity and determination he says would have been unthinkable that night in Sydney.
“I definitely want to win Olympic gold. Those are my goals. But if I don’t I’m fine with that. I already got two gold medals. A lot of people run their whole career and don’t achieve what I’ve achieved,” he said.
Asked if a gold in Beijing, or even two, would represent a comeback, he said: “I feel like I’ve already bounced back.”
Editing by Clare Fallon