“That I was meant to do this,” demonstratively states the reigning Olympic 400m Gold Medalist when asked to assess his initial reaction of his return to competition after having served an imposed 21 month ban for testing positive for performance enhancers DHEA and pregnenolone after inadvertently ingesting them in October of 2009.
This past July witnessed LaShawn Merritt’s re-emergence as one of the world’s best quarter-milers after his seasonal debut time of 44.74 from lane two secured a 2nd place finish in Stockholm. “It just felt so good to be under those lights . . . I just thank the Stockholm meet director for giving me the opportunity to actually compete,” a humble, appreciative Merritt recalls and admits, “I didn’t know where I was going to be able to compete, if I was going to be able to even compete at Worlds or Olympics or some of the major meets. But I stuck to my training; I had a date, which was July 29th. I said when I was eligible to come back, I am going to come back just like I left off.”
Merritt’s 44.74 satisfied the qualifying standard and coupled with the automatic entry afforded to defending world champions, the now eligible defending World 400m Champion secured a lane in Daegu, South Korea to compete in the 2011 IAAF World Championships. “I was out in lane eight and to run 44.3 out of lane eight, I knew I was in great shape because it was all my race,” explained Merritt whose time was the fastest in the world for the 2011 season. “I probably ran a little bit too fast,” admits Merritt, “but I was out in lane eight and I was running blind and I had to make it to the next round . . . but I would have wanted to run that first round a little bit slower so I could have a little left in the finals.”
Eighteen year-old Kirani James of Grenada defeated Merritt in the final by .03 seconds after trailing Merritt for the majority of the race. “Throughout the year we pretty much run races a little different so in a major championship you can put it all together,” explains Merritt who for this World Championship was not a benefactor of “those prior races.” “[Kirani James] caught me about the last 15 meters; my mentality is, if somebody is going to beat me, they was going to have to come get me,” states Merritt jokingly adding, “and he got me . . . but it’s no excuse, I just take the Silver Medal and take it for motivation for next year.”
But on the anchor leg of the Men’s 4x400 relay, Merritt had plenty of motivation when he ran down South Africa’s LJ van Zale and Jamaica’s Leford Green to win USA’s third consecutive World Championship Gold Medal in the event. “Just to know the history behind that 4x4, I didn’t want to be the one to not bring it home for us so that was a little extra motivation for me,” reveals Merritt who made an abrupt lane shift in the final straight away, which he dubbed the “VA Shuffle.” “They actually said they was trying to box me in,” states Merritt explaining, “I tried a move on the back stretch . . .I kind of had to hop over the other guy’s leg [and] I set it up great,” proudly adding, “It gave me a little burst of energy to just bring it home. I raised my hand up, crossed the finish line and gold medal for the USA.”
The reduction in his first-time offender suspension sentence from 24 to 21 months proved extremely timely and favorable for the two time Olympic Gold Medalist, affording Merritt a three month window of competition in which he “got to measure where [he] was in [his] training.” Merritt further explains, “I got a chance to compete against the people I’m going to be able to compete against next year but not show too much. I was in great shape, but I wasn’t in great race shape. So coming out in 2012 season, I’ll have a full season and get ready for London to defend my title.”
And Merritt’s quest to repeat as the 400m Olympic Gold Medalist has only been done one time in history by 400m Word Record Holder Michael Johnson who won 400m Gold at 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA and at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. “His record in the 400 is a deep record,” says Merritt adding, “It’s something that I think I’ll just let it come to me. Right now the focus is getting through this indoor and Olympic trials and getting to London and defending my title.”
And Merritt’s journey toward defending that title will begin on February 11th at the Millrose Games where he is scheduled to run the 500m event aiming to break the current world record of 1:01.19 set by Mark Everett in 1994. “That’s what we’re going for. That’s the task at hand before outdoor season. I’m excited about it. I’m getting ready for it. The record is 1:01, never quite ran that fast but I’ve been getting some good training in and it should be an epic moment,” says Merritt.
This year’s 105th running of the Millrose Games will for the first time take place at The Armory in Washington Heights, NY having announced it’s relocation in the fall of 2011 from the famous Madison Square Garden venue. Everett’s 1994 record was set during the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden whose smaller, outdated track with tighter turns has served as a deterrent in recent years for some of the sports bigger names competing at MSG. The Armory features a larger, modern Mondo surfaced 200-meter track that could prove advantageous for Merritt’s world record aspirations. “I’ve run at Madison Square Garden before and ran the 500,” states Merritt adding he, “never competed at the Armory. I heard it was a great track, great atmosphere, so I’m going to come in ready to run and looking for a world record. I’m putting in some great training right now. Little over distance training, I’ll tap into some speed once I get closer toward February 11th.” And as far as strategy for the venue which until now has been foreign to his spikes Merritt says, “I’ll get there a couple of days before to actually test the track out and work on some things on the curve so I can be ready.”
And in training and preparation to be ready for 2012, Merritt’s most important 2011 victory did not come on the track but in the Lausanne, Switzerland based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) which ruled in his favor that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “Rule 45” which prohibited athletes who received a ban of two years or more from ever competing again in an Olympic Games as unduly punitive. “When I got that call, it was like no other feeling; to know that my hard work that I put in, I’ll be able to show and also be able to defend my gold medals in London,” states a relieved Merritt adding, ”The whole time I’ve been competing towards the end of the season and even training and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to compete in 2012 which is the pinnacle of track and field.”
And of that 21 month suspended time period, Merritt admits he harbored doubts and even contacted his former East Carolina classmate now Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson for advice on contemplating a professional football career. “I was trying to figure out what am I going to do with my life because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to run track. I called [Chris Johnson] and he said ‘come out and try it, what do you got to lose?’ But I didn’t want to go out and have some little injury and I couldn’t be able to come back to track so I stuck with it and trained hard and it’s over with.”
Merritt further adds, “Those 21 months was a dark time, but I kept a team around me who kind of brought me back when I lost it a little bit because I wasn’t competing and I wasn’t getting paid. But I got through it and I’m here now.” And for those that maintain the hard line stance in opposition to his eligibility and credibility Merritt offers, “It’s a mistake that happened, I continue to work hard, I am going to still continue to work hard and it’s going to show in my performance. I think some people realize that it was hard work that I had to put in those 21 months and if they don’t, I’m here to tell them I put in a lot of hard work through those 21 months because I knew I was going to come back [and] I had to be great, not to prove it to anybody else, but it was just what I was blessed to do. God blessed me with a talent, so I feel like I have to maximize it.”
And Merritt will certainly have to be at his ‘maximum’ as the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in June will surely bring out the best in competition. “It’s always some fresh blood coming up, so I just have to stay on my game and stay to the plan and go out and get it done,” says Merritt who will also have to contend with some old blood as well in rival Jeremy Wariner who was the 2004 Athens Olympic Gold medalist he defeated in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Games. “Jeremy’s a great competitor, great guy,” states Merritt of his rival. “I know he is going to bring his A-game every time he steps on the track, so I know I have to bring mine. 2012 should be a great year because you have myself, Jeremy coming back off his injury, and you also have Kirani [James] coming up, so it’s forcing everybody to be in tip-top shape.”
An additional name to mix of 2012 400-meter Olympic hopefuls will be South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, who made history in 2011 winning his own court battle in becoming the first physically-challenged sprinter deemed permissible to compete with the able-bodied athletes as an “equal” in the event. “I spoke to Oscar, great guy. I’ve seen him progress,” says Merritt explaining, “Anytime a person over the years you see two-tenths of a second, a tenth of a second, three-tenths of a second, you know that person’s working hard. I don’t have a lot of knowledge on his situation and the prosthetic legs per se, but I have recognized how he’s progressively gotten better . . . I can say I’ve done the same thing.”
And after the suspension, the humiliating trial and tribulation and ultimate comeback, Merritt simply summarizes, “I knew if I stepped on the track it would be no excuses.”