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.”

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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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When Michael Phelps raced Libby Trickett at Duel in the Pool

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At the peak of his career, Michael Phelps was upstaged in a race by a swimmer who went four seconds slower.

Australian Libby Trickett did more than hold her own against Phelps to lead off the opening event of the 2007 Duel in the Pool, a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay.

Trickett, then known as Libby Lenton shortly before she got married, became the first woman to break 53 seconds, while Phelps went 48.72 in a head-to-head at the Sydney 2000 Olympic swimming venue.

“I was trash-talking … asking what he has got and telling him if he is going to bring it tonight. I think deep down he was really scared of me,” Trickett said, joking, according to The Associated Press. “Before the race he said good luck. He is a good competitor to race against, and I will remember that for the rest of my life — that I raced against Michael Phelps.”

Australia went on to win the relay by 2.49 seconds, in large part because Trickett swam .31 faster than the women’s 100m free world record. Normally, relay leadoff swims are eligible to break individual world records.

But FINA later ruled that Trickett’s time was not record eligible because the mixed 4x100m free was not an approved event. (Mixed-gender relays debuted at the world championships in 2015 and will debut at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.)

“I am a little disappointed because I know in my heart what time I swam and that time is faster than the existing world record,” Trickett said in 2007, according to Swimming Australia. “However, having said that, the disappointment can take nothing away from the fact I now know I am capable of swimming under 53 seconds and I will continue to strive to improve every aspect of my swimming.”

Trickett broke the world record officially at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials, clocking 52.88 to take .42 off German Britta Steffen‘s mark. The world record has since been lowered all the way to 51.71 by Swede Sarah Sjöström at the 2017 World Championships.

Phelps’ time was impressive, his second-fastest 100m free at the point in his career. He raced tired, two days after that year’s world championships finished in Melbourne. Phelps earned seven golds at those worlds, and he has said 2007 was his peak, rather than 2008.

He raced strategically against Trickett, not allowing her to draft off him in the adjacent lane.

“I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins,” Phelps said with a laugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 [meter] wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane.”

Trickett won five golds at the 2007 Worlds and another four medals at the 2008 Olympics, though Steffen edged her for 100m free gold by .04.

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Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

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