DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For a little bit, Tyson Gay's first step tearing down the track made him wince and his next made him wonder: Would he ever be the same sprinter again?
The runner who captured three gold medals at the 2007 world championships. The runner who broke the American 100-meter record in 2009.
Each time Gay hustled down the lane last summer, he felt a hitch in his surgically repaired right hip. It was a constant source of concern, especially going into the Olympic trials. He was just hoping that his hip would hold up, which it did and he made the London team. But he wasn't the same sprinter as he finished a disappointing fourth.
These days, he doesn't give the hip a second thought. He just may be in his best shape in years heading into the U.S. championships this week — possibly even his best shape ever.
"He's in a good place right now," his coach, Lance Brauman, said. "He's doing a lot of really good things. He did some stuff the other day and we did a video analysis and he looked the best he's ever looked on film. Hopefully, this summer shows it."
For the first time in a long while, there are really no restrictions on Gay. He can run until his heart's content.
Only, he's slowing down to speed up. See, he's always prided himself on the philosophy of "one more" — one more curve to hone his technique, one more burst out of the blocks, one more rep in the weight room.
To conserve his hip, the 30-year-old is training wiser.
"Still training really hard, though," Gay said. "But the name of the game is to stay healthy."
And he hasn't felt this healthy, since, well, he can't even really recall. He's been constantly plagued by hamstring and groin ailments, along with the hip. Pain became a constant companion around the track. Being healthy again is a heavy weight off his shoulders.
"I don't have a lot of stress going on right now," Gay said. "Everything is just going well for me. It's going really well."
He's turning in fast times, too, running 9.86 seconds at a meet in Kingston, Jamaica, last month, the fastest time in the world this season. He followed that up with a win at the Adidas Grand Prix meet in New York — in damp conditions, no less.
That silenced any doubts about his health.
"It took me a year or so to get over that hip surgery," said Gay, who set the American record (9.69) at a 2009 meet. "I'm now heading in the right direction."
Although Gay has the green light, Brauman doesn't want to push him too much and they've learned when to back off.
"It's about being patient, taking it day by day and not trying to do everything in one day," Brauman said. "Because that hip was more of an issue over the years than people realize. Now that he's healthy, he's capable of doing again what he's capable of doing."
The rejuvenation of Gay has certainly been noticed by his fellow sprinters.
"Tyson looks like he's in rare form once again," Justin Gatlin said.
It's the form that once led Gay to dominate the world of sprinting — until Usain Bolt came along.
In any other generation, Gay would've been the talk of track. But he's taken a back seat to Bolt — just like every other sprinter — as the powerful Jamaican has set world records (his mark stands at 9.58) and captured two straight Olympic 100-meter titles. Gay is tied with Yohan Blake for the fastest time ever run by someone not named Bolt.
"In my mind, it doesn't take away anything — he's tied for the second-fastest person to walk on earth. That's not too bad," Brauman said. "When he's on and he's healthy and everything is going well, he's awfully good. Obviously, he's one of the best ever."
Gay is anxiously awaiting the 100 meters at nationals, where he and Gatlin will be the favorites. Gay finished runner-up at trials last summer on a hip that bothered him so bad, he ran on grass during workouts to save some wear and tear.
"I'm not going into the race feeling like I have one hand tied behind my back," he said.
If he's feeling good after the 100, Gay may even run the 200 at nationals as well. That wasn't even a consideration last summer, given the state of his balky hip.
"I'm just going to take it one race at a time," Gay said. "I'm still working on being the best I can be."
The plan going forward is to keep sprinting until at least the 2016 Rio Games as Gay searches for that elusive individual Olympic medal. Gay was supposed to challenge Bolt at the Beijing Games in 2008, but a severe hamstring injury hindered the University of Arkansas standout.
In London, Gay wound up fourth, breaking into sobs after the race as he finished so close to a podium spot. He later earned a silver medal as part of the 400-meter relay.
"Last year is pretty much out of my system," Gay said. "I'm a lot healthier now. Everything is a lot better this year mentally and physically."
Follow AP Sports Writer Pat Graham on Twitter: http://twitter.com/pgraham34