LaShawn Merritt didn’t run competitively until he was in high school, but once he entered the track and field world he progressed at a startling pace. He didn’t begin running the 400 meters until he was 16. By 18 he was the World Junior champion. He ran on the victorious United States 4 x 400-meter relay team at the 2005 World Championships, at age 19, and earned the Olympic 400-meter gold medal at 22. In part 1 of this interview, Merritt discusses his track and field start and his early success.
How did you begin in track and field?:
“I started when I was in high school (but) I was introduced to it in elementary school. My mentor, who was my baseball/football coach, took me to a track and field competition at Norfolk State. And I just loved that one-on-one drive that I saw and that whole, ‘You can only blame yourself for losing’ type deal. It’s just you out there. I always grew up in team sports and when I saw (the track meet), it kind of grabbed my attention. But I didn’t know I could run, at a young age, so I started running when I was in high school.”
Which events did you run?:
“I started out in the 100, 200. And then one day, nobody wanted to run the 400. And my coach was like, ‘Real men really run the 400. Y’all ought to run the 400.’ So I kind of stepped up to the challenge. And I won my first race. But it hurt like crazy. But I was good at it, so I just kept on running it. And this was my junior year in high school.”
How did you improve so quickly in the 400?:
“It chose me. I feel like some things in life, it chooses you. I’d been running the 100 and the 200, but I was this tall guy who had the speed and the endurance that you need for the 400. And my first year running it I ran 47.9, my junior year. I worked hard with my coach, and then we actually got invited to an Olympic development camp out in San Diego, for about a week. And they recorded me, they taught me this, they taught me that, and this was the summer between my junior and senior year. By the end of my senior year I ran 45.2. So it was just a combination of, one, me wanting to run the event and knowing I was good at it from the first time I started running it. And really training hard for it.”
What was it like running in the World Championship at age 19?:
“It was cool. When I was 17 I won World Juniors, so I was the fastest in the world. … And that’s where I won the 400, the 4 x 4 and the 4 x 1, over at Grosetto, Italy. So that was the first time I actually got a chance to put on that USA uniform and represent the U.S. Once I turned pro it was all about being a pro now and, although I wanted to make it in the open 400 at World Championships, I got fourth at the Trials, but I still got to go over and compete in the 4 x 4 with the best guys in the world. So that really started my elite status.”
How did your rivalry with Jeremy Wariner help you?:
“When I turned pro I’d only been running the event for two years. And it’s definitely an event where you have to learn how to run it and know yourself, and know how you need to run this race. So when I started out I was still learning the race, learning my rhythm and everything. And because Jeremy was on top those years, it forced me to really work hard and learn my craft, study my craft a lot if I wanted to be number one. And I can remember the World Championships in 2007, I got second and I ran 43.9, which was a PR for me. And I was just so happy to run 43.9 that I was thinking, ‘You know what, I’m the second fastest guy in the world. I know the Olympics is coming up next year. I’m going to work harder than I’ve ever worked, this summer, on this off-season, so that in 2008 I can be number one in the world.’ Each year I got a little bit faster, a little bit faster, a little bit faster, because my knowledge and just my maturity level increased. So that rivalry really forced me to take it serious and really learn my craft.”
Read more about Jeremy Wariner.
Do you prepare differently for the Olympics than the World Championships?:
“Not really. Because it’s a matter of getting in a rhythm and focusing and being healthy. Each year we have a season. A lot of people don’t think we have a season each year, but each year we want to go out and give it our all. The World Championship is important. The same training goes into it. The hard work, the studying, the focus, the determination. A lot of it is going out and training hard to run this 400. The 400 is not going to change. It’s always going to be 400, no matter what meet it’s at. No matter which track, it’s still going to be 400 meters. So it’s just a matter of really wanting to be at your best and at the top of your game, and that’s about going out and learning and working hard.”
Check out Part 2 of LaShawn Merritt's interview, plus Merritt's running tips.
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The greatest moments in Olympic sprints and relays.