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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