Silver medalist Merritt takes 400m gold


Amber James
Special to USATF
USA Track & Field

Once considered a prodigy, LaShawn Merritt won the Men's 400m on Thursday night, beating Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion Jeremy Wariner by .20 seconds. Merritt went pro soon after high school and, in hindsight, his accomplishments then foretold what he would achieve here in Eugene.

As a high schooler in 2004, Merritt was the World Junior champion at 400 meters. One year later, running for East Carolina University, Merritt ran the then-second fastest indoor 400m time in the world as a freshman, behind that of Michael Johnson. He raised eyebrows when he became a professional before the NCAA Indoor Championships, but with the proceeds from his new contract with Nike, he bought his mother a house.

Much of the buzz about Merritt leading up to the Olympic Trials centered on the idea that he was a challenger to Wariner, who has dominated the 400m for four years. Merritt had finished a close second to Wariner at the 2007 World Outdoor Championships and had beaten him earlier this year. Indeed, many of the questions asked of Merritt following his Olympic Trials victory were in relation to his thoughts about beating Wariner by such a large margin. "I was the better man today," Merritt said. "The gap - it really doesn't even matter. I ran my race, I executed the parts that I wanted to and I finished first, it was just a little bit further distance today. I plan on continuing to win it. I like to win, I train to win, and that's what I want to do at the end of the day."

When he runs, Merritt's focus is not on his competitors, not on who they are and what they've done in the past. His focus is on running the way he knows he can. "I train on executing my race and doing the things I gotta do to be healthy; and when I'm in a competition to compete well, mentally and physically. When it comes to a race, once I've lined up, once the gun goes off, my focus is to execute and cross the line healthy and hopefully in first."

Merritt's rise to track and field prominence has not been just one successful race after another. He and his family suffered a serious loss in 1999 when his older brother Antwan died. Merritt says his brother was forced to jump from his eight-story dorm room window at Shaw University in Raleigh after being badly beaten by three assailants in his dorm room. Merritt's brother is a big inspiration to him and about his 400m final race he said, "I dedicate this race to him."

Merritt will be joined by Wariner and David Neville in representing the United States as the Men's 400m team in Beijing. "I'm ready. This is my first Olympic team...we're taking three great athletes over to Beijing and we're going to represent the U.S. well."

Among the many medals Merritt has received, he is the 2007 World Outdoor Championships 400m silver medalist and 4x400m relay gold medalist; 2-time USA Outdoor Championships runner-up ('06, '07); 2006 USA Indoor Championships runner-up; 2005 World Outdoor Championships 4x400m relay gold medalist; 2004 World Junior Championships 400m, 4x100m and 4x400m relays gold medalist; and 2004 USA Junior Championships 200m and 400m gold medalist. Merritt currently resides in Suffolk, VA and is 22 years old. His career best is 43.96.