ROME (AP) — Hardly anyone outside of Italy had heard of Marcell Jacobs before he succeeded Usain Bolt as the Olympic 100 meter champion in Tokyo.

Three injury-filled years have passed, and the Texas-born Italian is almost as big of a mystery now as he was then.

American sprinter Noah Lyles is deservedly garnering the spotlight entering the Paris Games after sweeping three golds at last year’s world championships. A host of other racers have dipped under the 10-second mark this year, too — an achievement that Jacobs hasn’t accomplished in nearly two years.

So Jacobs also has the unusual status of being both the defending champion while remaining an underdog for the biggest race of the Olympics.

“It’s good because I can stay under the radar. I can do my preparation, my race, without think(ing) about what the other people think about me,” Jacobs told The Associated Press. “I don’t need to win all the races, but I want to arrive at the Olympics and win again.”

Having dealt with a series of physical issues, the 29-year-old Jacobs hasn’t won all that much over the past two years.

He withdrew from the semifinals at the 2022 worlds with an injured thigh muscle and then didn’t qualify for the final at worlds last year. He withdrew from numerous other races, too, and was even hospitalized for a night in Kenya because of a stomach virus.

The injuries and the lack of results led Jacobs to drop his longtime coach, Paolo Camossi, who had guided him since his days as a long jumper, and move to Jacksonville, Florida to work with experienced coach Rana Reider and an elite group of sprinters including Andre De Grasse, Trayvon Bromell, Jerome Blake and Abdul Hakim Sani Brown.

“That’s been the biggest thing,” Reider said, “trying to figure out why he was carrying so many injuries for so many years. … So we’ve kind of had to unpeel the onion and find a way. We’ve found some stuff that we’ve been able to fix and we’re working our way into being 100% healthy.”

On the health front, so far, so good: Jacobs hasn’t been bothered by physical issues in his four races since April.

The results and the times, though, remain a work in progress: 10.11 seconds in Jacksonville, Florida on April 27; 10.07 in Rome on May 18; 10.19 in Ostrava, Czech Republic, on May 28; and 10.03 in Oslo, Norway, on May 30 — all a long way off the 9.80 he won with in Tokyo.

But the times are not far from Jacobs’ results before Tokyo.

Jacobs hadn’t cracked 10 seconds before the last Olympic year and dipped only slightly under that mark twice before entering Tokyo — which was one reason why questions were raised after he won gold.

“We spoke a lot about that criticism but it hardly even bothered him. We didn’t even need to work on that — doping and the stories like that,” said Nicoletta Romanazzi, the mental coach whom Jacobs credited with helping him achieve his goals in Tokyo.

“Other items were more complex, like helping him deal with all of the changes (in his life),” Romanazzi added. “Success can be scary.”

Jacobs also helped Italy to gold in the 4×100 relay in the Azzurri’s breakout performance in Tokyo and became an instant celebrity at home.

“That’s the biggest change, right? When you’re Olympic champion, you win out of the blue, you don’t know what comes with it,” Reider said. “The athlete knows how to run 0-100 but then you have to figure out, ’What does my agent do? What does everyone else have to do around me to try and guard me. So I think in Jacksonville he’s guarded very well. He trains with other Olympic champions that are superstars.”

Compared to the attention he receives wherever he is in Italy, Jacobs goes virtually unrecognized in Florida

And he isn’t the only one, Reider noted.

“It’s track and field in the U.S. No one really cares,” Reider said. “I mean we’re on a track where there’s (people) every day that see us and they have no idea who (the sprinters) are, who I am. So it’s kind of comical.”

So what is Jacobs like off the track?

“He’s just a family guy,” Reider said. “Likes to go home and spend time with his kids and his wife. He’s just in his own little bubble. If I call him at nighttime, he’ll send me a text message back saying ‘I’m with my kids, I’ll call you later.’ And that’s all he wants to do. He trains hard. We spend long days together and then he just wants to go home and spend time with his family.”

Up next comes Jacobs’ biggest pre-Olympics test at the European Championships on his home track in Rome starting Friday.

“We want to run fast in Paris,” Reider said. “But we (also) want to run fast at home. We want to be European champion.”

The last time Jacobs broke the 10-second mark came in August 2022 when he won in 9.95 at the previous Euros in Munich.

“The idea is to race a lot and put a lot of different aspects together, because I basically overhauled my entire training regime,” Jacobs said. “So I need to race more to put the pieces together.”

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AP coverage of the Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games