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.”
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.”Follow @nzaccardi