LaShawn Merritt
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LaShawn Merritt returns to 200m, after 14 years, with Olympic double in play

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EUGENE, Ore. — When LaShawn Merritt began sprinting as a high school sophomore in 2002, he raced the 100m and 200m. The following year, the Portsmouth (Va.) Wilson High track team needed a 400m runner.

A coach wanted it to be Merritt and told him, “real men run the 400.” The fearless athlete (Merritt also played wide receiver and safety at Wilson) accepted the challenge.

Merritt won his first 400m race, then a Virginia state title as a junior and then the junior national and junior world titles in the 400m as a senior.

He turned pro after his first semester at East Carolina, earned a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships and gold at the 2008 Olympics. Both in the 400m, of course.

Merritt never raced the 100m again, and the 200m fewer and fewer as he fluctuated in the 400m (dropped out of the 2012 Olympics due to injury, won the 2013 World title).

In 2015, Merritt didn’t race a single 200m for the first time in 15 years in the sport (excluding 2010, when he didn’t race at all due to his infamous suspension). He wasn’t healthy early last year, when he usually contests those half-lap races.

But Merritt never forgot that early in his career, he set a goal of racing both the 200m and 400m at a global championship. The 30-year-old has decided that the Rio Olympics might be that meet.

“I’m not sure yet, we’ll see,” Merritt said after leading his 200m first-round heat in 20.09 seconds at the Olympic Trials, four days after winning the 400m to make his third Olympic team.

Merritt was third-fastest of the 24 men who advanced to Friday’s 200m semifinals (the final is Saturday, where the top three make the Olympic team). But Merritt shut it down significantly more than the two teenagers who ran slightly faster in earlier heats before it started raining.

“Still a little foreign to me, that 200,” Merritt said afterward. “It wasn’t a hard race. It was only half of my race.”

Track and Field Trials: ResultsDaily Schedule | TV Schedule

Merritt, after clocking a personal-best 43.65 seconds in the 400m to take silver at the world championships last Aug. 26, took fewer than two months of an offseason. That was an adjustment.

“They’ve been trying to get me to train in November since 2011,” said Merritt, who is on his third coach since then, working since January 2015 at Disney’s Wide World of Sports under Brooks Johnson.

It appears the extra work benefited Merritt, who sank his teeth into this season with 200m races in March, April and May. In Nassau, Bahamas, on April 16, Merritt clocked 19.78 seconds.

It was a personal best (beating his previous top time from 2007). Only one man had ever covered 200m faster that early in a year (Michael Johnson in 2000).

“That was a fast time and we thought, hmm, we might as well see if we’re feeling healthy,” Merritt said.

It held up. Merritt owns the world’s fastest 200m and 400m times this year. He may join Allyson Felix, who has received far more publicity for her plan, as the first Americans to try and win the 200m and 400m at the Olympics since Michael Johnson in 1996.

“Somebody did it, and that means it can be done again, I guess,” Merritt said Thursday.

Unlike Felix, Merritt said he’s not taking the 200m too seriously. He says his focus is the 400m and, specifically, the 400m world record. That belongs to Johnson, of course, at 43.18 seconds.

The 2015 World Championships 400m final was so fast, gold medalist Wayde van Niekerk and Merritt ran the world’s fastest times since 2007, that Johnson’s world record could actually be neared in Rio. Nobody has been within a quarter of a second since Johnson set it.

Last year, Merritt surpassed Carl Lewis for the most World Championships medals for an American man (11, though Merritt has the benefit of worlds every other year, while most in Lewis’ prime were every four years). But it is not medals that motivates Merritt.

“I understand the legacy in this sport that people are talking about, it’s when people run fast,” Merritt, who is the sixth-fastest man all time in the 400m, said last fall. “I’ve won for a long time, but I’m not talked about with Michael Johnson and [third-fastest man of all time] Jeremy Wariner, with the 43.4s and 43.1s.”

If Merritt makes the Olympic team in the 200m and chooses to double in Rio, he will have an easier schedule than Felix.

There is a full day off between the men’s 400m final and the first round of the 200m, whereas Felix had to petition to push the women’s 200m first round from an hour before the 400m final to earlier in the same day.

Merritt would then get another full day off before the 4x400m relay, possibly his third event in Rio. By the end of the Games, people could be talking about him like never before.

“I really want to get these Games and run well and get two golds,” Merritt said on USATF.TV, before pausing and adding, “three golds, possibly.”

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‘Race and Sports in America: Conversations’ primetime special covers social justice, combating inequality

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Athletes, including Olympians, discussed social justice, locker room conversations about race and ways that sports can help combat inequality in “Race and Sports in America: Conversations,” airing Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel and NBC Sports Regional Networks.

NBC Sports’ Damon Hack hosted roundtables with active and retired athletes at the American Century Championship Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, last week.

Panelists, including Olympians James Blake and Charles Barkley and Tokyo Olympic hopeful Stephen Curry, also reflected on personal experiences.

Barkley, an Olympic gold medalist in 1992 and 1996, said coaches recently reached out to him to speak to their teams.

“First of all, relax and breathe,” Barkley said. “This crap started 400 years ago. We can’t do nothing about that. We can’t do anything about systematic racism. What I challenge every Black person, every white person to do: What can I do today going forward?

“You have to ask yourself, I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Blake, a retired former top-five tennis player and 2008 Olympian, was wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and arrested by a plainclothes New York City police officer in 2015 in a case of mistaken identity caught on video. The police officer’s punishment was a loss of five vacation days.

“The first thing I said when I got tackled was, I’m complying 100 percent,” Blake said. “And that shouldn’t have to be your response the first time you interact with a police officer. And because that’s the way my dad taught me is stay alive. Do whatever you can to stay alive. Sort it out later with lawyers or however you want to do it, and stay alive in that moment. The fact you have to have those rules in 2020 means maybe we have to do something drastic to change the way police interact with the African-American community and the way the community interacts with the police.”

Curry said his daughters, 7-year-old Riley and 5-year-old Ryan, asked questions about the images they recently saw. He’s not shielding them, but rather being honest about society, going back centuries.

“We have to continue to double down and double down and keep people accountable in all walks of life, all industries, all forms of leadership, the judicial system, all those type of things,” Curry said. “And hopefully for my kids’ generation, their kids, we will see change. I’m hopeful and optimistic about, but I understand how much work will need to go into that.”

The full list of athletes who participated in the “Race and Sports in America: Conversations” roundtables:

• Charles Barkley – 1992 and 1996 Olympic basketball champion
• James Blake – 10-time ATP tennis champion, 2008 Olympian
• Stephen Curry – two-time NBA MVP, two-time FIBA world champion
• Troy Mullins – World Long Drive competitor
• Anthony Lynn – Los Angeles Chargers head coach
• Jimmy Rollins – World Series champion shortstop
• Kyle Rudolph – Minnesota Vikings tight end
• Ozzie Smith – Major League Baseball Hall of Famer

Additionally, Hack was joined by Super Bowl champion running back Jerome Bettis for an extended interview that will be published on NBC Sports’ digital and podcast platforms.

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Shelby Houlihan shatters American 5000m record

Shelby Houlihan
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Shelby Houlihan chopped 10.52 seconds off her own American 5000m record, clocking 14:23.92 at a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet in Portland, Ore., on Friday night.

Houlihan, who was 11th in the Rio Olympic 5000m, has in this Olympic cycle improved to become one of the greatest female distance runners in U.S. history.

She first broke Shannon Rowbury‘s American record in the 5000m by 4.47 seconds in 2018. In 2019, she broke Rowbury’s American record in the 1500m by 1.3 seconds in finishing fourth at the world championships in 3:54.99.

On Friday, Houlihan and second-place Karissa Schweizer both went under the American record. Schweizer, 24 and three years younger than Houlihan, clocked 14:26.34, staying with Houlihan until the winner’s 61-second final lap.

“I knew Karissa was going to try to come up on me and take the lead. She does that every time,” Houlihan told USATF.tv. “I had decided I was not going to let that happen.”

Houlihan improved from 41st to 12th on the world’s all-time 5000m list, 12.77 seconds behind Ethiopian Tirunesh Dibaba‘s world record.

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