Nehemiah to Merritt: “All eyes on Aries.” It’s time to build the legacy

Fast Life File
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by Chris LaMonica
January 15, 2013

Separated by thirty-one years, two weeks, and five days of time, the most significant benchmarks in the history of the men’s 110-meter hurdles share a performance connection having both improved the existing record at the time by .07 seconds.

Heralded for transforming the event into an art form and widely recognized as having made the most notable advancement in the short hurdles, Renaldo Nehemiah broke the world record on three separate occasions and became the first human being to run sub-13 seconds over the barriers.

Compiling a race year like no other athlete before him, Aries Merritt’s 2012 sensational, historic season produced a record eight sub-13 single season performances inclusive of the world record setting time of 12.80 seconds in route to realizing Olympic gold, World and U.S. Indoor titles, a U.S. Olympic Trials championship and the Diamond League 110mH title.

In a Fast Life Show exclusive, comprehensive hour-long interview, both former and current world record holders discussed the event, the sport, technique and examine and bring into question the future development of the men’s 110-meter hurdles.

Merritt of his record-breaking performance from lane 6 on Sept. 7, 2012 in Brussels, Belgium:

“Going into the race, I knew that if I won the meet that I would win the Diamond League … I was just focused on winning … I’ll never forget warming up in Brussels … I had to take a break to do the Olympic parade … I warmed up an hour earlier than normal … honestly, the only thing I wanted to do was run sub-13 one last time because me and Dayron (Robles) were tied for 7 sub-13 performances in one season, legal … that was mindset, just compete and win and the time will be there, hopefully it’ll be under thirteen.

Midway through the race … I just felt like I was just being thrown forward … I just felt so out of control … if I can just hold this and stay on my feet … and it was awkward because normally I feel someone near me when I’m running and this time I just didn’t feel anyone … and when I dipped for the line and I looked at the time it was just complete and utter shock!”

Nehemiah held the world record at 13.00 seconds set in 1979 during his sophomore year at the University of Maryland in the lead up to his history making world record race two years later in Zurich.  “Skeets’” collegiate mark remains the fastest time in NCAA history, ironically, and perhaps in a manner foreshadowing what was to come, Merritt’s 13.21 set at the 2006 NCAA Championships while at the University of Tennessee is the second fastest.

Nehemiah on his record-breaking performance from lane 6 on Aug. 19, 1981 in Zurich, Switzerland: 

“Still to this day, the Zurich meet is arguably the biggest meet in the world and during my generation, if you were anybody, you had to win the Zurich meet, so we were training … to break the world record that particular year and if we could do it, it would be even better to do it in Zurich.

The day before I was supposed to leave I got into this disagreement with my coach (Wilbur Ross) … it delayed me from leaving … it was financial, and we had a difference of opinion, so he decided not to go; so I actually arrived the morning of the race.

I was angry; I was not focused as far as the race … Greg Foster my nemesis is waiting there … fortunately the TWA [airline] people knew who I was … and behind the business cabin there was space so …  I slept on the floor like it was a bed, so when I landed, I felt pretty refreshed, but I was still upset … so I ran with anger … When the gun went off, I ran like a bat out of hell to the first hurdle and I ran so hard and so out of control that I had to like ‘jump’ the hurdle … because it came up so fast and it took me until the third hurdle to get my composure … and I was running … with reckless determination … and going from nine to ten, I pulled ahead a little bit and then I ran like a zombie off of ten and then when I leaned and looked up it said 12.93.  I couldn’t believe it.”

In yet another correlation between the hurdlers, Nehemiah’s personal best time of 12.93 was a mark of frustration for Merritt during the course of the season having run the time on three different occasions from June 30 up until breaking through with a gold medal winning 12.92 seconds in the London Olympic final.

“Aries, he was in such rhythm this year running those 12.93’s so much … that it was just a matter of time finding the conditions … and fortunately … he was still relaxed enough that he was able to run that ridiculous time,” noted Nehemiah as Merritt reveals he actually sought the former world record holder’s counsel a few times during the 2012 season.

Furthermore, Nehemiah explains he informed Merritt, “not to chase times,” feeling that, “the promising and positive,” thing about Merritt, “being stuck at 12.93 was that at least he could run it at will … so that meant that his body had already adjusted to what it took to run 12.93 and it was just a matter of perfecting a couple of things … and that it would happen.”

And to the magnitude of the ‘ridiculous’ world record time, the sport’s perceived next plateau for the event had stood at 12.85 after Cuba’s Dayron Robles established himself as the event’s world record holder with a time of 12.87 seconds in June of 2008 at the Golden Spike Ostrava meet.

When asked as to the “redefining” nature of the new world record, Merritt, with a spirit of humility, offered:

“All I think I’ve done is build off of what people before me have done.  Renaldo was one of the people that I mimicked … my college coach Ben Fenderson used to use diagrams and pictures of Renaldo’s position and all I did was build off that over my six year professional career and also studied other athletes like Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang and Allen Johnson, of course; just studying them … and seeing how they operate and seeing anything that I can do to make myself a better athlete.”

Nehemiah’s thoughts on the impact of the 12.80 time were as follows:

“I compare what Aries just did probably to what I did at the time as far as a generation.  I always felt the time that he ran was attainable and it was just a matter of someone realizing they could do it.

The thirteen second barrier is still a huge barrier, it still puts you in an elite class, but Aries, in my view, now has elevated himself into the stratosphere that people thought I was in when I first broke 13 seconds as no one had ever done it.

He’s in rare air now; you’re talking finite improvements to shave a hundredth of a second off [to run sub 12.80].”

Additional perspective to qualitatively gauge the record by comparison to existing world records on the men’s side across the sprint and sprint hurdle spectrum, Nehemiah suggested the following:

“When Michael Johnson ran 19:32 … I said, ‘it had to be wind aided, no way!’  When Usain Bolt [ran] in Beijing, I couldn’t believe it, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And then, last year, Allen Johnson called me ... and said … ‘So what do you think of Aries hurdle time?’… I said, ‘wind-aided, right?’ … so to put it in perspective, in modern day times, it was that Bob Beamon thing to me … and I said, ‘That’s going to be around for a while; that’s going to around for a long time.’

I’m not going to say it’s not possible, but Aries’ record will be around longer than four years … and the best thing about his record for me personally is that he brought the record back to American soil.”

Allen Johnson’s gold medal victory at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was the last time a U.S. hurdler had accomplished the feat prior to Merritt’s London 2012 Olympic gold.  “I actually watched that when I was 11 years-old and I told my mom that ‘I wanted to do that,’ I wanted to run,” recalled the Chicago-born Merritt who grew up in Atlanta adding, “it’s really satisfying and honoring to bring it back to the U.S., the world record and that gold.”

Despite the achievement, Merritt speaks of harboring some disappointment in the wake of his Olympic victory admitting, “I really wanted to finally break the 12.9 barrier at the Olympic Games because it would have been historic,” adding that after walking across the line at 12.94 in the semi-final he believed, “without a shadow of a doubt,” he would break the world record in the final, but, “I didn’t take into consideration the amount of pressure that that entailed because I was running tight … I wasn’t as relaxed.”

And as Merritt’s golden Olympic moment occurred on British soil, the Reebok hurdler does not anticipate the 60mH World Indoor Record of 7.30 seconds established by Britain’s Colin Jackson to be coming back across the pond any time soon.

“By no means am I going for a world record indoor,” stated Merritt who informed Jackson as such while at the IAAF Gala in Barcelona, Spain categorizing the record as, “just silly; you’d literally have to run 7:20-something to break it!  No one’s in shape to run 12:80 in January or February.”

Merritt, who will open his indoor season in Boston at the New Balance Grand Prix, will do so with the intent, of using the indoor season, “as a rhythm builder for outdoor,” now a full year more accustomed to the seven step approach which he adopted last season.

Merritt on the change from eight steps to seven steps:

“For me I was always having to back off of eight and so I would run up for the first five steps and I would literally be breaking the next three steps to take the hurdle and I’d lose all momentum built up and so for me making the change from eight steps to seven steps was a positive thing because [now] I don’t have to back off and I can blow through the first hurdle and I can keep all momentum that I built the entire time.

It was a risk doing it [last] season because it was an Olympic year, no one wants to try and learn something in such a short amount of time but I just had the will to get it done because I wanted to be on that Olympic team and I did everything possible the right way to get it done.”

And in the overall technical assessment of Merritt’s race, where Robles was noted for his speed over the top and Liu for his clean technique, Nehemiah states Merritt will be acknowledged for his “shuffle in between.”

“Ours was more up and down fast and theirs is more shuffle fast,’ explained Nehemiah of the generational difference adding, “the quicker he shuffles, the better prepared he is to attack the hurdles … he’s shuffling more close to the ground which is generating more foot speed and he’s in a better position for that speed.”  Nehemiah also indicates that modern track surfaces and equipment are conducive to implementation of the style allowing for faster times.

Now the world record holder, Merritt begins his next chapter with an accrued level of comfort focused less on ‘fast times’ and more on dominance which Nehemiah describes as, “legacy building.”

“Now it’s time to stay consistent; compete against people, beat people … and strive to continue to be number one in the world and then he’ll have his place in history secured,” detailed Nehemiah further emphasizing the importance of leaving your, “mark on the game because you can be a world record holder and nobody knows you,” an echoing sentiment with which Merritt wholeheartedly concurs.

Moreover, Nehemiah clearly defines the mark as emerging as, “one of the all-time great hurdlers that America has ever produced,” to which Merritt translates as having a, “personal goal to run at least four to five sub 13’s because with that amount I would have been the first hurdler in history to run the most sub-13 ever,” eclipsing Johnson’s career mark of eleven wind legal.   Merritt’s current total rests at eight career wind legal sub-13 performances.

A model of consistency in 2012 and seeking to be, “remembered as such,” as his career progresses, Merritt states he, “figured out chasing times get you know where … it’s just letting go and just executing … my races to the best of my ability … and it’ll be a matter of me mastering how to control that feeling of being out of control while staying on my feet.”

But the one thing that remains out of his control are the sport’s governing bodies’ voting interests which conspicuously failed to award a year-end accolade to the athlete that won every individual accolade and major title throughout the course of the 2012 track and field season.

“Statistically what Aries accomplished last year, we might not never see again,” stated Nehemiah, agreeing Merritt should have been IAAF Athlete of the Year, revealing two Diamond League false starts in New York and Lausanne to be the scrutinizing culprit leading to deductions in the scoring system.

“I won everything.  I still feel like I should have gotten Athlete of the Year,” expressed Merritt further stating he feels personally, “the Athlete of the Year Award is a popularity contest rather than an actuality of what it should be because the best athlete of the year in my eyes was myself … [thinking] the Athlete of the Year would have went to record setter this year, either me or David (Rudisha).”

Taking nothing away from the achievements of Bolt and Rudisha, Merritt neutralizes the notion of “losses” as a result of disqualification being of just cause for him not to have received the AOY by accurately pointing out that, “All of us had our losses …

Bolt also had losses last year; he lost to (Yohan) Blake at his championships twice … and David was also defeated this year in Zurich.”

And to the USATF Male Athlete of the Year, Merritt contests, “And at home, you would think I would have got the Jesse Owens Award,” with both Merritt and Nehemiah citing greater exposure to defeat as a factor deserving heavier consideration juxtaposed to the winner, decathlete Ashton Eaton, who Merritt describes as doing, “a phenomenal job; he broke the world indoor record; he broke the world outdoor record.”

So for the hurdler that sought to just do something dangerous and join the sub-13 club last season, the aim has shifted to, “wanting to do something legendary… in 2013.”  And to that task, Nehemiah states, “I want that name ‘Aries Merritt’ to be one of the signature names every time you talk about the hurdles … I want him to be the force that I used to be where you don’t go to a track meet unless your there to watch the hurdle race.”

Careful not to get too far ahead of himself but believing, “He will be in [his] prime at that time,” Merritt feels, “as a hurdler you get better with age,” and hence remains cautiously optimistic regarding the promise of Brazil 2016 where a defense of his Olympic gold title would permanently cement his hurdling legacy becoming the first man since Roger Kingdom in 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul to repeat as Olympic 100-meter Hurdles Champion.

But more immediately are the 2013 World Championships in Moscow which Merritt understands to be a reinforcing component to his other worldly 2012 season as well as a key building block to his legacy.

“Outdoor, I’m going to run the majority of the Diamond League races … because it’s all going to be part of preparation,” stated Merritt acknowledging an existing “discrepancy” as both he and 2011 World Champion Jason Richardson are both the owners of automatic entry bids for the IAAF 2013 World Championships.

An IAAF rule change in Nov. of  2011 awarded Diamond League winners an automatic ‘wildcard’ entry into the World Championships.

And as it is ever year in late June, the top three of each event from the USA Track & Field Championships will make the U.S. Team; however, the unique situation of dual wildcard recipients as yet remains unresolved by USATF.   “I don’t know if they’re allowed to take both,” questioned Merritt still awaiting an answer from the governing body as it will alter his training, “If I don’t run USA’s I’ll be able to train through that meet as opposed to trying to peak for that meet.”

Nehemiah ultimately clarified, “If you have a wildcard, you will have to go to USA Championships; you don’t have to obviously place, but you have to at least enter and run one round.”  Hence, alleviating the critical, nerve-racking process for Merritt of first having to make the team in order to compete on the world stage.

And in 2013, with the recent withdrawal of Cuba’s Dayon Robles and China’s Liu Xiang succumbed to a fully ruptured Achilles tendon, it is a stage that will be absent both former world record holders for the foreseeable future.

“It’s a blow to our event because that’s what made my event so exciting because it just wasn’t an American that could win; it was a Chinese or Cuban that could challenge as well,” explaining Merritt believing it may, “hurt the event a little bit, but as long as we keep having people line-up that are running fast times, I think we’ll be alright.”

Nehemiah concludes, “I think it’s slim pickings as far as people who can run under thirteen, who are out there right now, and so for the sport itself, all eyes are on Aries.”