LaShawn Merritt of the United States looks at the clock as he crosses the line to win the gold medal in the men's 400m final in Berlin (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News 22 August 2009 – Berlin, Germany

More fond Berlin memories for 400m champion Merritt

Berlin, Germany It was on the Berlin track 14 months ago that LaShawn Merritt recorded his first victory over Jeremy Wariner after eight successive defeats in finals against the Olympic and World champion. As pleased as he was, Merritt said that nobody would remember that win if he didn’t repeat it at the Olympic Games.

And so he repeated. And repeated once again last night.

The 23-year-old Merritt, having succeeded Wariner as Olympic champion in Beijing, has now denied him a third successive World title. Wariner’s four-year reign as World No.1 has given way to Merritt’s second straight year in the top spot.

“I had run the race in my mind a million times before I stepped on the track and every time I had won,” Merritt said. “So it was all about taking it from my head and putting it on the track. The gun went off, I clocked into work. I was prepared, I came out, and I conquered.

“The last time I ran here I won. I have great memories of the track – big lanes, big blue track, great audience, great atmosphere.”

After Beijing triumph, the hunger remains

But this was nothing like the Golden League race in June 2008 in which Merritt had to battle every inch of the way, edging Wariner out by only 0.04sec. Merritt’s time last night – 44.06 – was not far short of his 44.03 here last year but Wariner’s 44.60 was feeble by comparison with his 44.07 then.

“Last year was a big year for me,” Merritt said. “In ‘07 I got a silver (at the Osaka World Championships). I didn’t want another silver in ‘08, so I worked hard - I worked very hard in ’08. It was my first Olympic Games, I got my gold and I stayed hungry because this is my second World Championships and, in my first one, I got silver and I wanted gold in this one.

“I’ve had a great year all year. The times haven’t been looking as great but the competition really wasn’t there.”

By ‘great year’ Merritt meant that he was now unbeaten in seven 400m finals this season. By paucity of competition he meant that he had not raced Wariner all season until last night. On the three occasions prior to the World Championships that Merritt and Wariner had appeared at the same meeting, they ran in separate races.

Memory of late brother never far away

While his coach, his family, Jesse Owens and ‘everybody back home’ featured on Merritt’s list of people to thank, none was as poignant as the tribute to his deceased brother, Antwan, who died in tragic circumstances in 1999 and who was responsible for the naming of LaShawn.

Antwan was in college in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he fell to his death from a fifth floor dormitory window. In an interview with the IAAF website shortly before the 2007 World Championships, Merritt explained the part his brother had played in his upbringing.

“Although my dad is a big part of my life, I didn’t grow up with him in the household, so my brother was the oldest male in the house and I looked up to him a lot,” Merritt said at the time. “He was always at my baseball games, and my football games, when I was younger.

“He would say: ‘LaShawn, if you get two home runs, I’ll give you five dollars. If you do this, or that, I will take you and your friends out to eat or whatever.’  But he never got the chance to see me run track. So when I run I always think of him.

“My brother wanted my name to be LaShawn for some reason. When I was 1, and he was 5, he picked my name. My mum and dad liked it so that’s what I was stuck with. I think he said LaShawn because his name was Antwan, so he probably just picked something to rhyme.”

Last night Merritt said that he continued to be driven by Antwan’s memory. “Every day I’m blessed to wake up, I have been blessed to go out and train hard. I know he’s watching me and I dedicate every race to him. He’d be proud of me.”

So too, no doubt, is Merritt’s coach, Dwayne Miller. Before he became Olympic and World champion, so-called experts had been telling Merritt that Norfolk, Virginia, was not the ideal development ground for his talent and that Miller was too inexperienced.

“I heard a lot of talk about not training where I was,” Merritt said. “I had a lot of people in my ear saying I couldn’t do it because of where I was. I had training partners who came and tried to train with me and left because people got in their ear saying my coach wasn’t an elite coach. But I stuck with him because I believed he could get me to where I am and we did it together as a team.

“My coach and I have a strong relationship. He took me from 47.9 in my junior year in high school to 45.2 in my senior year. From that moment I knew he had what it took. This is what he wakes up every day and wants to do – to coach and see me on top. Much of my success is dedicated to him because, without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“We had a plan. Ever since I got back with him in ’05 our main focus was Olympic Games. I learn something new every year, work on something new every year. He knows my body. In practice he knows what I can take and can’t take. We’re going to ride it out. I have many more years in the sport. I’m looking for longevity.”

After three successive global championship years, 2010 is the fallow year in four. A quiet season ahead then? Merritt doesn’t see it that way. “Next year is going to be a big year also,” he said.

“You have Renny (Quow) who got the bronze today. He PRd in his semi-final (44.53) and I know he’s going to work hard next year. Everybody wants to be No1. I will take my time off to celebrate but not too much because the work still continues next year. I’ll run a couple of 200s, focus on some different things, maybe run World Cup, maybe not. I know it’s a World Championships the year after next so I’ll prepare myself mentally and physically.”

Wariner discovered there are no guarantees. You’re up there to be shot at and Merritt intends to dodge the bullets. A third year as world No.1 beckons.

David Powell for the IAAF