Where did LaShawn Merritt go?

LaShawn Merritt
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LaShawn Merritt, who developed a Cal Ripken-esque reputation for running anywhere and everywhere, was hard to find in 2018 and 2019.

Merritt, the 2008 Olympic 400m champion and two-time individual world champion, raced just seven times over those two years. He skipped entire Diamond League seasons and did not enter national championships.

Turns out, Merritt was going through the toughest injury spell of his career.

After taking bronze in the Rio Olympic 400m, Merritt moved from Orlando to Doha that November, reconnecting with Dwayne Miller, his coach from high school to January 2012. He trained on the sand dunes of Qatar. He also developed tight calves and tore plantar fascia.

The next two years were rhythmic: therapy, rehab, training, overcompensation, injury, coaching change.

He moved back to Florida after bowing out of the 2017 Worlds in the semifinals. He returned to coach Brooks Johnson and developed plantar fasciitis.

“I’m not a run-through-the-wall type of runner,” Merritt said. “This is something new to me to be running, training hurt.”

Come 2019, pain developed in his big right toe. Merritt underwent surgery for the first time in his career to cut out a bone spur last autumn.

“Now I’m in a process, beginning of this year, training is going well and … we are where we are now,” Merritt said, referencing the coronavirus pandemic halting sports. “As far as the foot, it’s recovered. I’m training. I had a great base training this season, then this happened.”

Before the absence, Merritt was the most successful U.S. male sprinter for a decade. It helped that Merritt focused on the 400m — not Usain Bolt territory — but he also showed incredible durability.

He won the 2008 Olympics in 43.75 seconds, making him the fifth-fastest man in history at the time. Five years later, he lowered his personal best again to 43.74 (2013 World title). He did it once more in 2015, taking silver to Wayde van Niekerk at worlds in 43.65.

In the first decade of his career, Merritt competed in events between 60m and 500m. He once raced 34 times in a season, then 31 times the next season (including heats), according to Tilastopaja.org.

In 2016, Merritt qualified for the Rio Olympics in the 400m and the 200m, flying to Brazil as the world’s fastest man in the 200m that year despite focusing on the longer distance.

The most historic race of Merritt’s career was one that he lost. He remembers the Rio Olympic 400m final in detail, starting with seeing van Niekerk arrive late to the warm-up area. Last month, Merritt gave a four-minute answer to one question about the race.

Merritt, after registering the slowest reaction time, had the fastest first 200m split in history, according to track-stats.com. He was one tenth faster than van Niekerk, who was in Merritt’s sights out in lane eight. By 300m, van Niekerk moved ahead by two tenths.

“I remember getting to 300 and just seeing [van Niekerk] out in eight and thinking, OK, he’s going to slow up,” Merritt recalled, “because I feel like I can read body language really well. … But I misjudged that, and it kept going. And it got to a point where I wasn’t exhausted as far as depleted, exhausted in the last part of the race. I felt like, I don’t know, I just misjudged it. I don’t feel like I was totally, totally prepared in every sense to really run that fast and expect that, but I judged the body language a little different.”

Of the three medalists, Merritt had the slowest last 100 meters: van Niekerk was 12 seconds flat, Kirani James 12.6 and Merritt 12.7, according to track-stats.com.

“[Van Niekerk] crossed the finish line, and then Kirani crossed, I crossed, and I was thinking, either that was really fast or we didn’t run fast,” Merritt said. Van Niekerk won in 43.03, taking .15 off Michael Johnson‘s world record from 1999. Merritt took bronze in 43.85 seconds, the fourth-fastest time of his career (all four came in Olympic or world championships finals).

Four nights and three races later, Merritt took sixth in the 200m final. He still finished 2016 with the fastest 200m time of the year (19.74), from the Olympic Trials semifinals.

“I never sped up training for the 200m where I felt like I knew how to execute a 200m race and I actually trained for it,” Merritt said. “The 400m is my race. That’s what I study, that’s what I’ve been running for years. I run the 200m because I can run it.”

Merritt said that if not for the pandemic and Olympic postponement, he considered putting more emphasis on the 200m this year.

“But 400m is my race,” he said. “And I haven’t mastered the 400m because I still want the world record.”

Merritt is now the only 400m sprinter in Dennis Mitchell‘s training group in Central Florida, a cadre that includes Justin Gatlin, who is five years older.

But his competition is young. World 400m champion Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas is 24. U.S. champion Fred Kerley is 25. Michael Norman, who in April 2019 ran the fourth-fastest 400m in history, is 22.

“A lot of them [Merritt didn’t name anyone specifically, but younger sprinters in general] haven’t proven to really be able to really execute that race when it’s the biggest time and bring that same type of time out, but I understand that these young guys are excited,” Merritt said. “It’s a new day and age. A lot of social media going on, so they’re putting a lot of themselves out. So when they get on the track, it’s like I put this out, so I’m here to run and do this, but I’ve got to back that up, also. I see there may be a little chip on the shoulder when it’s time to compete because you’ve already put so much out there from [social media].”

Merritt, who has been reading “Jay-Z: Made in America,” spoke of the last two years as the time he “left the sport.” Come the Tokyo Olympics, he will be 35 years old, older than any previous U.S. Olympic male sprinter.

“Now I’ve just got to get to the point where, what I have in my brain, I can put that same type of work ethic into my body, get onto the track, connect the two and do something special,” he said, “because I just feel like I know more.”

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MORE: Aries Merritt hopes to make Tokyo Olympics his last

Germany opens bobsled worlds with double gold; Kaillie Humphries gets silver

Laura Nolte Bobsled
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Germans Laura Nolte and Johannes Lochner dethroned the reigning Olympic and world champions to open the world bobsled championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, this weekend.

Nolte, the Olympic two-woman champion driver, won the four-run monobob by four tenths of a second over American Kaillie Humphries, who won the first world title in the event in 2021 and the first Olympic title in the event in 2022. Another German, Lisa Buckwitz, took bronze.

In the two-man, Lochner became the first driver to beat countryman Francesco Friedrich in an Olympic or world championships event since 2016, ending Friedrich’s record 12-event streak at global championships between two-man and four-man.

Friedrich, defeated by 49 hundredths, saw his streak of seven consecutive world two-man titles also snapped.

Lochner, 32, won his first outright global title after seven Olympic or world silvers, plus a shared four-man gold with Friedrich in 2017.

Swiss Michael Vogt drove to bronze, one hundredth behind Friedrich. Geoff Gadbois and Martin Christofferson filled the top American sled in 18th.

Americans Steven Holcomb and Steven Langton were the last non-Germans to win a world two-man title in 2012.

Bobsled worlds finish next weekend with the two-woman and four-man events.

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Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic climbed into the Rod Laver Arena stands to celebrate his 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title Sunday and, after jumping and pumping his fists with his team, he collapsed onto his back, crying.

When he returned to the playing surface, Djokovic sat on his sideline bench, buried his face in a white towel and sobbed some more.

This trip to Australia was far more successful than that of a year ago, when he was deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. And Djokovic accomplished all he could have possibly wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis, declaring: “This probably is the, I would say, biggest victory of my life.”

Only briefly challenged in the final, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5). As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“I want to say this has been one of the most challenging tournaments I’ve ever played in my life, considering the circumstances. Not playing last year; coming back this year,” Djokovic said, wearing a zip-up white jacket with a “22” on his chest. “And I want to thank all the people that made me feel welcome, made me feel comfortable, to be in Melbourne, to be in Australia.”

The 35-year-old from Serbia stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run there in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two from the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man.

Only two women — Margaret Court, with 24, and Serena Williams, with 23 — are ahead of him.

This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, breaking a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most.

“I would like to thank you for pushing our sport so far,” Tsitsipas told Djokovic.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece also lost the other, at the 2021 French Open, to Djokovic.

On a cool evening under a cloud-filled sky, and with a soundtrack of chants from supporters of both men prompting repeated pleas for quiet from the chair umpire, Djokovic was superior throughout, especially so in the two tiebreakers.

He took a 4-1 lead in the first, then reeled off the last three points. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple before screaming, a prelude to all of the tears.

“Very emotional for us. Very emotional for him,” said Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic. “It’s a great achievement. It was a really tough three weeks for him. He managed to overcome everything.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30.

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was too unyielding. Too accurate with his strokes, making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble).

“I did everything possible,” said Tsitsipas, who also would have moved to No. 1 with a victory, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, who sat out the Australian Open with a leg injury.

Perhaps. Yet Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one swing, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.

That’s what happened when Tsitsipas held his first break point — which was also a set point — while ahead 5-4 in the second and Djokovic serving at 30-40. Might this be a fulcrum? Might Djokovic relent? Might Tsitsipas surge?

Uh, no.

A 15-stroke point concluded with Djokovic smacking a cross-court forehand winner that felt like a statement. Two misses by Tsitsipas followed: A backhand long, a forehand wide. Those felt like capitulation. Even when Tsitsipas actually did break in the third, Djokovic broke right back.

There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get when allowed to enter Australia because pandemic restrictions were eased.

He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible.

And then there was the complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal. The tournament banned spectators from carrying flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding; Srdjan thought he was with Serbian fans.

Still, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal or the final.

No matter any of it, Djokovic excelled as he so often has.

“He is the greatest,” Tsitsipas said, “that has ever held a tennis racket.”

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