LaShawn Merritt
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Where did LaShawn Merritt go?

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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

Figure skating Grand Prix Series will be held as ‘domestic’ competitions

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Series will go ahead as scheduled this fall, with modifications due to the coronavirus pandemic, the International Skating Union decided Monday.

Each of the series’ six tops around the globe will be “a domestic run event,” limited to skaters of the event’s host country, who regularly train in the host country and from a respective geographical area. The number of disciplines and skaters at each event are to be worked out.

The Grand Prix Series, held annually since 1995, is a six-event fall season, qualifying the top six skaters and teams per discipline to December’s Grand Prix Final. The annual stops are in the U.S., Canada, China, France, Russia and Japan, leading up to the Final, which is held at a different site each year.

The Final is the second-biggest annual competition after the world championships, which are typically in late March. The Final is still scheduled for Beijing, though whether or when it can be held will be discussed.

The series begins in late October with Skate America, which debuted in 1979 and has been held every year since 1988 as the biggest annual international competition in the U.S. Skate America’s site is Las Vegas, just as it was in 2019.

Skaters typically compete twice on the Grand Prix Series (three times if they qualify for the Final). ISU vice president Alexander Lakernik said skaters will be limited to one start in the six-event series before the Final, according to TASS. The ISU has not confirmed or denied that report.

The January 2021 U.S. Championships are scheduled for San Jose, Calif. The March 2021 World Championships are set for Stockholm.

In July, the ISU canceled the Junior Grand Prix Series for skaters mostly ages 13 to 18, including two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu. Other early season senior international competitions scheduled for September were also canceled or postponed.

MORE: World’s top skater leaves famed coach

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Ex-Michigan State gymnastics coach sentenced in case tied to Larry Nassar

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A former Michigan State University head gymnastics coach was sentenced Tuesday to 90 days in jail for lying to police during an investigation into ex-Olympic and university doctor Larry Nassar.

Kathie Klages, 65, was found guilty by a jury in February of a felony and a misdemeanor for denying she knew of Nassar’s abuse prior to 2016 when survivors started to come forward publicly. She also was sentenced to 18 months of probation.

Klages testified at trial, and in a tearful statement Tuesday, that she did not remember being told about abuse. She said she had been seeing a therapist to try to remember the conversations and apologized to victims if they occurred.

“Even when I don’t express it to others, I struggle with what I’ve been accused of and what my role in this tragedy may have been,” she said in court.

Two women testified in November 2018 that in 1997 they told Klages that Nassar had sexually abused them and spoke Tuesday in court ahead of the sentencing. One of the women, Larissa Boyce, testified that Klages held up a piece of paper in front of the then-16-year-old and said if she filed a report there could be serious consequences for Boyce.

“I am standing here representing my 16-year-old self who was silenced and humiliated 23 years ago and unfortunately, all of the hundreds of girls that were abused after me,” Boyce said.

If the case had not involved Nassar, her lawyer has said, Klages would never have been found guilty. Nearly 200 letters were submitted to the judge on Klages’ behalf, her lawyer, Mary Chartier, said in a court filing ahead of the hearing. She noted that Klages sent her granddaughter, daughter and son to Nassar for health care.

“Mrs. Klages was one of thousands of people, including the police and the parents who were present in the room during treatments, who were fooled by a master manipulator with a singular design,” Chartier said.

It’s “shameful” to say that Klages could have prevented the scandal, Chartier said.

“Numerous people were told about the procedure — nurses, athletic trainers at other schools, psychologists, doctors and a high school counselor — and they did nothing,” Chartier said, quoting investigation reports. “Most notably, police and prosecutors were aware of the procedures, and they did nothing. To ignore this and claim that Mrs. Klages could have stopped the devastation wrought by Mr. Nassar is just plain false.”

Nassar was sentenced in 2018 to 40 to 175 years in prison for decades of sexual abuse to hundreds of athletes.

Klages is the second person other than Nassar to be convicted of charges related to his serial molestation of young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment. The misdemeanor carried up to a 2-year prison sentence, while the felony carried up to a 4-year prison sentence.

Nassar’s boss at Michigan State, ex-College of Osteopathic Medicine Dean William Strampel, was sentenced to jail for crimes including neglecting a duty to enforce protocols on Nassar after a patient complained about sexual contact in 2014.

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MORE: British gymnastics stars speak up about abuse amid investigation