ADHD Athletes: Inspiring Sports Stars with Attention Deficit

Three inspiring athletes with ADHD reveal how their attention deficit has helped shape them into top competitors and big winners.

Athletes, Part 2

Justin Gatlin

Co-holder of the world's record in the 100-meter sprint
"Nothing could stop me - not even ADD."

On May 13, running at an evening meet in Doha, Qatar, Justin Gatlin tied the world record in the 100 meters: 9.77 seconds. The time was a remarkable 0.09 seconds faster than his time in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens - which had been good enough to capture the gold medal.Since then, fans have hailed the 24-year-old Brooklyn, New York, native as the "world's fastest man."

Gatlin's triumphs on the track represent more than victories over his fellow competitors. They symbolize a highly personal victory over an adversary that had almost waylaid his entire racing career: ADD.

Diagnosed with the condition in first grade, Gatlin would never say that ADD, in itself, has held him back. On the contrary, he says his condition fed his love of track. "Ever since I could walk, I have been running," he remembers. "In class, I had trouble concentrating, but racing helped me focus."

In high school, Gatlin won event after event. He was unstoppable. Then, during his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, he tested positive for a banned drug and was barred from competition for two years.

What was the drug? Steroids? Growth hormone? No, it was the stimulant he was taking for ADD. The drug would have been permissible, Gatlin later discovered, if he'd known to file papers indicating that he was taking it for therapeutic purposes. But he had not.

"Everything I had worked for was going down the drain," Gatlin recalls. "I cried like a baby. They made me feel like a criminal and a cheater, when I had no idea I'd done anything wrong."

Eventually, the ban was reduced to one year. Still, Gatlin faced a difficult choice: Should he continue taking his meds - which helped him keep his grades up - or give up the meds so that he could compete in track? He chose the latter. "After the day I tested positive, I never took another pill," Gatlin says.

Off meds, Gatlin found it hard to concentrate. His grades plummeted. But gradually, with the help of tutors and a few simple changes (including a strict no-telephone-or-TV rule during study time), things improved. "When I needed to focus, I'd think about a college friend of mine who had told me she had ADD and was going to law school," he says. "That stuck with me. It made me think, if she can achieve her dream with ADD, I can, too."

Gatlin began competing again at the end of his sophomore year. But his problems with focus began affecting him on the track. "During one race, I spotted a promotional tent with my face on it," he recalls. "I couldn't stop thinking about how much I disliked the photo, or the earring I had on. It threw me off my game. That's the only time I came in dead last. I was so embarrassed!"

Over time, Gatlin's focus returned. By the time he was getting into the blocks for the 100-meter sprint in Athens, nothing could shake him. "In those few seconds when I was waiting for the race to start, I thought, 'Please, God, if I'm meant to do this, let it happen,'" he recalls. "When I crossed that finish line, I was so happy they could have sent me home with a cardboard medal. I wouldn't have cared."

In 2006, Gatlin achieved another "first," of which he's equally proud: making the dean's list. "I was surprised," he says. "With running, there's always been an award for doing well, but I never really thought I'd get an award for school."

Gatlin is quick to say that not everyone with ADD can, or should, go off medication. But he thinks more people should consider that an option. "It's natural for people, and parents, to want you to be the best by any means necessary," he says. "But all my life, I felt I was less of a person without medication. It became a crutch for me. It took me years to gain confidence that I could achieve whatever I set my mind to, even with ADD."

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This article comes from the June/July 2006 issue of ADDitude.

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TAGS: ADHD Role Models, Exercise and ADHD

 

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