Beijing, ChinaIt may have been an anticlimax for those who had been building up the men’s 400 metres for over a year, as a face-off between the established star and the young pretender. But in the end, it was an apotheosis for LaShawn Merritt, who won easily over defending champion, Jeremy Wariner.
“It’s been a process,” said Merritt, who installed himself as world number two with his silver in Osaka last year. But when he beat Wariner twice this season, including in the US Olympic Trials, the prospect of an upset arose.
“Me and my coach had a game plan. I came to these Olympics feeling better than I’ve ever felt. After the semi-finals, I was going to let nothing get in my way in the finals.”
Open up, and let it all fly
The mark of a champion or even a prospective one is their willingness to change their game-plan to suit circumstances. One good example earlier in the Games was swimmer, Michael Phelps adding an extra half-stroke at the end of his 100 metres butterfly race, in order to beat Milorad Cavic of Serbia by just one hundredth of a second.
Merritt did something similar, adapting a lesson learned from double sprint champion, Usain Bolt. “I’m almost 6’3” (1.90m),” said Merritt, and I looked at the semi-finals, and saw I was taking short steps. I actually learned from Usain Bolt’s race, and he’s what? – 6’5” (1.96m)! And he really opened up. I used to run like that in High School, before I became all technical. So I decided to come here and open up, and let it all fly”.
It worked to perfection, once he passed Wariner, the defending champion lost heart, and lost by a fraction under a full second.
In tribute of his deceased brother
Merritt, 22, was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, to Brenda Stukes and Owen Merritt, but now lives in nearby Suffolk, in the same state. He was such a revelation as a junior that he decided to quit college and pursue his career as a professional athlete. But he goes to college independently, i.e. he pays his own way, at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, also in Virginia.
When Merritt settles into his starting blocks, he offers a kiss to the sky, and he did the same more fulsomely with his gold medal in his hands after the presentation of awards. This is a tribute to his deceased elder brother, Antwan, who was instrumental in bringing up LaShawn when their parents divorced. Antwan, six years older, introduced LaShawn to baseball, and pushed him into playing the trumpet. It was even Antwan who suggested his little brother’s name.
But in trying to escape from a fight at university, Antwan jumped from an eighth floor window, and was killed. He was only 19. LaShawn, then 13, stopped playing baseball, and gave up the trumpet as well. But, he did take up running, at Woodrow Wilson High School, in Portsmouth.
“When I was running in High School,” he recalled in a pre-Olympic interview, “it was like an out-of-body experience. It was like both of us were running”.
At the press conference after his victory, he said, “I dedicate my medal to him. He wasn’t around to see me run track. It’s definitely something he would have been proud of”.
On a different note, his manager, Kimberley Holland regaled us with something she reckoned, “not many people know. LaShawn has a great singing voice. You know, people say they can sing, but when I heard him, I couldn’t believe it. He’s got a lovely baritone. He was singing ‘Dear Momma,’ by Boys2Men, and I said, ‘Oh, my God, you really can sing’. It’s no bathroom voice, I can assure you”.
Merritt certainly hit the right note on the track too.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF