16 JUL 2004 General News

Merritt makes sure 400m World Junior title remains in US hands

LaShawn Merritt of USA wins 400m final (Getty Images)LaShawn Merritt of USA wins 400m final (Getty Images) © Copyright

17yearold LaShawn Merritt became the fifth American in the history of the IAAF World Junior Championships to clinch gold in the men’s 400m as he improved his own fastest time in the world to an impressive 45.25 here in Grosseto.

The double US junior champion who was elected Men's Outstanding Athlete of the USA Junior Championships after winning both the 200m (20.72) and 400m (46.80) crowns, decided to enter only the longer sprint here in Italy.

Following convincing wins in his first round heat and semi-finals, Merritt lined-up for yesterday’s final as the outstanding favourite for gold and after a cautious 300m, the powerful American brilliantly responded to the late surge of Botswana’s Obakeng Ngwigwa to win the race by a comfortable 15-metre margin in a new Championships record.

“I came here to win,” said Merritt. “I tried to run very hard the first 300 metres but since I could feel the guy in lane three coming up I decided to wait and save energy to run a strong 100m at the end. When I entered the final straight I had lots of power left.”

A High School student at Woodrow Wilson, Virginia, Merritt confesses he is still feels like a beginner in a sport he’s only been practicing since he was 14.

“I used to be a baseball player up until three years ago. I’ve always wanted to run track but we didn’t have any facility in middle school. My PE teacher was more of a football guy so he didn’t really take me towards athletics. Then at high school I started practicing and got better and better.”

“Last year I had a personal best of 47.9,” he says almost apologizing. “But I was undefeated. The thing is that I won my state meetings but then my coach didn’t take me to the next level of competition. I didn’t race anymore last year, so I can say I didn’t lose one race!

Discreet and extremely polite, Merritt won the 2004 Virginia high school state 100m, 200m and 400m crowns and will be a freshman at East Carolina University this fall, joining head coach Bill Carson who is member of the World Junior coaching staff.

The change will no doubt help polishing the fantastic natural talent of this future psychology student whose inspiration has come from seeing Michael Johnson win so many races.

“I’m still learning a lot from track and I have room for improvement. I love the challenge and I want to improve my speed and run my races differently. I would like to be able to run my first 50 metres harder and improve my strength. I am really looking forward to my next few years at College.”

A newcomer in the sport Merritt was very sweet when explaining he was concerned about how his stomach would react to Italian pasta before running the final.

“I’ve been enjoying my time in Italy very much, the village is cool and the food is nice but I was kind of worried of how my stomach would react to all the pasta I ate. I mean I haven’t eaten meat for so much I didn’t know if my stomach would be ok. I always need my meat!”

The son of a teacher and a shipyard officer, Merritt has a 14-year-old sister whom he has inspired to take up the sport but “she ain’t no good” he laughed!

A 10.38 100m runner Merritt will step back on the track to help team USA 4x100 and 4x400m teams to clinch gold on Sunday.

Before positioning himself in the blocks, Merritt pointed his right finger to the sky and when asked the meaning behind this gesture, his eyes filled in with tears as he explained he has dedicated all his races to his late older brother who passed away at 18 years of age.

A smile comes back to Merritt’s face when the name of Michael Johnson arises in the conversation.

“Yes I do admire Michael Johnson. I have unfortunately never met him but maybe one day I will not only meet him but also become as strong as he was!”