At the end of ‘09, I viewed the men’s 400 as the sprint event with the most upside potential and room for an athlete or two to step in and make a name for himself. Now that it looks like we are going to lose Lashawn Merritt for a while, the event is more wide open than ever.
We’re into the first part of May and we have yet to see Jeremy Wariner on the track – which could mean that injury rumors are true. If so, that would mean the event’s only two gold medalists in the Olympics and Worlds going back to 2004 would both be off the track. The last major final not to have one of these men win gold was back in 2003 when the medalists were Jerome Young, Tyree Washington and Marc Raquil – none of whom are in the sport any longer!
With Merritt out, my Thirty Watch List will fall to 21, and if Wariner doesn’t return to ‘07 form it could be heading towards 20! Luckily the 400 is an event where we’ve always had a lot of depth. So hopefully we have enough talent that someone can step up and seize the opportunity. The question on the table is who will that be? Because both domestically and internationally the event has been a bit “soft” of late. Merritt was the only sprinter to run under 44.50 last year – a barrier that has traditionally been the dividing line between the very good and the truly elite. And not even Merritt ran under 44.00 in ‘09, and 13 of the 16 athletes that ran under 45.00 were bunched between 44.73 & 44.99.
Having said that, we have athletes that are capable of stepping up and filling the void. I classify them as “The Old”, “The Young”, and “The Wild Cards”.
Any conversation on the 400 must start with Wariner. He’s won either gold or silver in every major since 2004. His PR makes him #3 all time in the event, and up thru 2007 it appeared that he was well on his way to making a serious attack on the WR of 43.18. Then came 2008 and two things happened. First there was a split with his long time coach, Clyde Hart - mentor to WR holder Johnson. Then there was Lashawn Merritt finally supplanting him as #1 after several years in Jeremy’s shadow. The loss in Beijing was followed by an ‘09 season that saw Wariner get back with coach Hart but running “only” 44.60 on the season and taking his second silver behind Merritt in Helsinki – his first season without a sub44 clocking since 2004. So the question for Wariner is, was ‘09 a blip on Jeremy’s radar or are his best season’s behind him? At 26 years old, Wariner is still young by 400 meter standards. So last season should be just a blip on the radar. And without a serious challenger, he should be able to run relaxed and get back into that rhythm that made him so hard to beat. If that’s the case, then Wariner moves right back to the head of the class and resumes ruling over the event.
Here is a talent that has shown he can do almost anything he wants in the realm of the 400 – when he’s on. In 2000 he won Olympic gold over the hurdles in 47.50 – out of lane 1! He had various levels of success between ‘01 to ‘06 including some time away from the sport before focusing on the 400 without barriers and winning bronze in Osaka (‘07). He then went back to the hurdles in ‘08 and won gold again in 47.25! Then was out in his heat at World’s in Berlin last year. Taylor has had a penchant for running 43 second relay legs going back to his collegiate days and clearly is a talent here. With the event seemingly “opening up” will he decide to focus here or the hurdles? His best in this event makes him #10 all time, but at 31 years old and the clock ticking he’s got to decide which way to go. Should he choose this event he could be a force.
Talk about a talent. Here’s a hurdler that could possibly be better on the flat than he is over barriers. An odd comment to make about a man that has won 2 World titles, Olympic silver, and since ‘05 has had season bests of 47.24, 47.39, 47.61, 47.79, and 47.91. But if you consider that his times have gotten progressively slower each season, and add the fact that his hurdling often looks more like that of a steeplechaser than a hurdler, then you’ll begin to understand why I feel that way. Add the fact that Clement is the indoor WR holder for 400 (44.57) and has an outdoor PR of 44.48 in spite of running the event only occasionally, and one salivates at the thought of this 24 year old giving the open 400 some serious attention! Not to mention that when at his best he finishes strongly with an ease rarely seen over 1 lap. Clement has stated on more than one occasion that he wants to break the hurdle WR (46.78), but with bests of 10.23, 20.49, and 44.48 without taking any of them seriously, he might have a better chance of attacking the 400 WR as there are no hurdles to steeplechase over. He seems to be a sub 44 waiting to happen, but will he let the hurdles go?
If indoor times mean anything, then Lawrence could be the next great thing. He had a breakout indoor season where he became #5 all time with his 45.03 best. Of those ahead of him on the all time indoor list, three ran sub 44 outdoors (Michael Johnson, Lashawn Merritt and Danny Everett) and the fourth (Kerron Clement) has run 47.24 over hurdles – not bad company. It’s hard to judge him so far this outdoor season with a best of only 48.94, but with youth on his side, there is plenty of up side to this young man. His indoor times alone say he bears watching. As does his hard charging, run from the front mentality. If he can translate his indoor form to the outdoor oval, with his long stride he could easily become a low 44 performer – and potentially go sub 44.
Smith appears to finally be coming into his own. No small feat considering that his father was THE Calvin Smith that set the 100 WR (9.93) back in 1983. The younger Smith has chosen to focus on the longer sprints and has had success making the US Olympic team in ‘08 as a relay member, and taking third at last year’s NCAA Championships and bringing a best of 44.96 into this season. But it was his world leading 44.81 win against Tyson Gay that has caught the attention of many, as he ran strongly and composed down the final straight to over take Gay just before the line for the win. Showing steady improvement each season since coming out of high school, this 22 year old appears ready to take the next step into the elite ranks. He has the genes, and lately he’s shown the determination. His come from behind style is admirable, but should he begin to stay up with the pace in the first 300, we could see a serious breakthrough from Smith.
Talk about youth, this 19 year old has already dropped his best from his high school best of 45.48 to 44.86 and its still early in his freshman season at Mississippi State. Right now there is nothing but “up side” to this young man. The #1 high schooler last year, he hasn’t missed a beat this year. He was a member of the US gold medal winning 4x4 squad at this winter’s World Indoor Championships and clocked his first sub 45 in late March. This kid is a gutsy runner, and I expect to see him around 44.60 this year. With no major championship it’s a great season to improve and get into position for the ‘11/’12/’13 trifecta of championships. My gut tells me he will be battling for a spot on these teams.
The Wild Cards
Carter has shown that he has the potential to run any of the three sprints with bests of 10.00, 19.63, 44.53. In ‘06 Carter appeared to be on the verge of super stardom as he won the first ever 100/400 double at the NCAA Championships, then proceeded to go to Europe and beat Gay, Spearmon and Bolt with his 19.63 – at the time the #2 time in history! Since then a knee injury in ‘07, followed by an ankle injury and surgery in ‘08 have slowed him down – though he still managed 20.27 last year. Carter is a triple threat talent, but his start makes him extremely vulnerable over 100. His strength and power make him a constant threat over the long sprints. People forget that when he ran his 19.63 he ran down Tyson Gay who was in the process of running 19.70 – the only time in history that someone has been beaten from behind while running that fast! Many also forget that he once cruised 44.0 while anchoring LSU’s 4x4 squad. The “X-man” could be a major player in this event if he chose to focus here – though my gut tells me that he prefers the deuce. But then Michael Johnson made a career of running both. But with what I think is sub 44 potential, this is where he belongs.
I said back in January, that I thought that Gatlin might best be served in his come back by giving this event a shot. I won’t go into all the details here, but simply put he has the skills to do well here. Decent height (6’ 1”), great speed (9.77), great speed endurance (19.85), and he’s shown that he can handle the distance running regular relay duty at Tennessee (44.2 relay best). Given his age (28) and where the 100 & 200 have gone in his absence, combined with the recent departure of Lashawn Merritt, this event could be his entry point back to elite status. I know that he wants to prove himself in the short sprints. But if things don’t pan out there, Daegu looms in 2011 and there are spots to be had for the taking at this point!
This event will an interesting one to watch this year. No Worlds or Olympics, just the opportunity to get better and get into position to make next year’s team for Daegu. One gold medalist gone and another in question. Medals appear to be locked down in the 100 and 200 by Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay. If you’re running anything under 800 meters this event has got to look a bit appetizing if you’re someone with medal aspirations – especially if you aspire to gold! While anything can happen in the next 13 months (Trials for Daegu in June ‘11) as of today these are the athletes that I think have the best shot at making that team – should they decide to tackle this event.