I had the distinct pleasure of sharing a conference call yesterday afternoon with defending Olympic 400 meter champion LaShawn Merritt. This year’s World silver medalist is in base training for the upcoming Olympic Games, preparing hard to defend his title.
He took time out after practice to speak with me about his career and the upcoming Olympic season. It was an enjoyable exchange and I found LaShawn quite introspective. He seems very focused on London and I suspect that the battle for the Olympic gold medal will have to take a path through Merritt.
With that, here is what LaShawn had to say about the 400, his career, and London.
Conway – LaShawn I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. First off you’re one of the most talented sprinters in the world. In high school you were among the best in all three sprints – 10.47 (12th), 20.72 (3rd), 45.25 (1st). Why did you choose to focus on the 400?
LaShawn – I really started running the quarter because my coach said that real men run the 400. And the 400 just came more natural to me. I just feel in the quarter that everything, my body, my mind set, everything just seems more natural, just geared for the 400.
Conway – You were in the high school class of ’04. That class had some big names: Walter Dix, Ivory Williams, Xavier Carter, Galen Rupp, and Jason Richardson. You’ve emerged as the most successful of them all so far. How do you feel about that?
LaShawn – I just think the day that I turned professional before everybody I kind of got a jump on them as far as running as an elite athlete. I had to learn faster. They got to go to college and play around with it for a while. Not that they weren’t serious, but I was forced at 18 to treat it as a job. While they were in college I was already on the circuit and had to take it very serious at a younger age. But right now I feel they’re coming on. Jason did really well this year and so did Walter. I think they all are going to do better as time goes on.
Conway – You’ve focused on the quarter, but still run 19.98 in the deuce. Have you ever thought about trying to make a World or Olympic team in the 200?
LaShawn – You know what, I have. Me and my coach have talked about doing it when I’m later in my 20’s. Mike (Michael Johnson) did it and I think anything can be done with hard work.
Conway – We all know about your time out. What was it like not being able to compete for the better part of 2 seasons?
LaShawn – It was hard. I felt like a caged animal, literally. There wasn’t too much I could do except get up and train, go to school during the first part, and come home. Over and over and over again. There was no income coming in. My mind was somewhere else. I didn’t know what my future in the sport was going to be, I just had to work hard and have faith. I just had a date when I knew I was going to come back and show what I could do. I knew I had to come back and be dominant. So I had to put in the work to do that. I just trained hard so I would be able to dominate when I got back.
Conway – What were you thinking as the deadline approached for you to race knowing that no one had run faster than 44.6?
LaShawn – I just knew that I had worked hard and I was ready to run.
Conway – Well, I watched you in Daegu and you were just blowing it out from the first race. Was it hard trying to keep your emotions in check? And do you think that perhaps you lost the gold to your emotions?
LaShawn – Man it was crazy. I didn’t know what my feedback was going to be from the stands. I didn’t know a lot about how my body was going to respond, so I just had to put myself in the moment I was in. I got there and knew I had trained well and was ready to run fast so I just executed my race – and I ran the fastest time in the world. I knew I was in good shape and ready to run real fast. When I got to the finals it was sort of a new experience because it was the first time I had not run several races prior to a Championship. I went out and ran but my body and mind weren’t in one accord because I didn’t have all the races behind me. I just went out and was leading and just got to a zone where my body hadn’t been in a long time for my body and mind to know what to do. I wasn’t in sync, body and mind. You train to be there and do this and I think that’s what took me through to that point. I’m thankful for having the opportunity to do that and run that well. I got second at Worlds and didn’t have a great race on a certain day, but it let me know I was blessed with a gift. So I have to go out and work hard to take advantage of that gift.
Conway – Well, you got a very close silver in Daegu in spite of everything that happened this year. MJ is the only quarter miler to repeat as Olympic champion. Can you repeat, and if you do where do you think it would put you in a conversation about the all-time greats in the event?
LaShawn – In 2012 my goal is to be Olympic champion. There is nothing else I think about. Every day in training I think about that, that’s what I do everything for. And when I get there that’s what I’ll be thinking about, just getting it done. When I win I will be among the greats and leave my legacy on the sport and it will be from all the hard work I’ve put in on the track.
Conway – I’m going to mention three quarter milers and I want you to tell me what comes to mind – Jeremy Wariner.
LaShawn – He executes. When he executes he’s dominant because he did it for so long. So Jeremy is about execution. Can we make up a word, because if we can he’s an executionist. He’s a guy who you don’t really know what’s going on with him. He stays to himself. He gets in a zone. He has the shades on and goes out and his main focus is he’s going out to execute his race. That’s what he does. And when he does he wins. When he doesn’t he doesn’t win.
Conway – Tony McQuay, this year’s National champion.
LaShawn – I spent some time with him and got to know him, because we were on the team together in Daegu. I watched him run at Nationals, but he only ran that one round at Worlds. When I think of him I think he’s a young talent. Very talented. But he’s still kinda young.
Conway – Kirani James, this year’s World Champion.
LaShawn – When I think of Kirani I think of young and hungry. He just seems to want it really bad.
I go out every day to get ready. I have no choice but to go out and be hungry, execute and use my talent. Because that’s what I’m up against every time I step on the track. So I guess that’s me because that’s what I have to beat.
Conway – Is there anyone else on your radar for the Olympic season? Better yet, given that everyone that matters is healthy; can anyone challenge you for the gold? Is there anyone out there standing in your way?
LaShawn – You can’t leave anybody out. I know running this event year after year I was getting better because I took it serous and learned more and got better. Other people can surprise you and come up and do the same thing. Guys like the Borlee twins, Jermaine Gonzales. Guys who were maybe injured this year. There are 8 lanes in the final. 8 people will line up for the final in the Olympics and anything can happen. It will come down to who’s ready, mentally and physically; who is prepared; and who executes.
Conway - No one has run a 43 since ’08 (you ran 43.75 and Jeremy ran 43.82) without your time away do you think you would have run 43 in ’10 or ’11 and will you be ready to run 43 next year?
LaShawn – I think I was in shape to run 43 this year. I was in shape for it. But to tap into 43 you not only have to be in shape you have to be race sharp and I wasn’t race sharp. I do believe I will touch 43 seconds next year. I do believe that. I’ll be ready.
Conway – Easily your highlight moment of this year, at least for me, was your anchor in Daegu on the 4x4. Usain Bolt says he wants to go for four gold medals in London by leading the Jamaican 4x4 to victory – along with the 4x1/100/200. How do you feel about that?
LaShawn – We have the most dominant quarter milers in the world and we’ll be ready to take on whoever steps into it. You can’t just get out there and run it. It takes work. It takes a certain mindset. If the US puts the team together that we can there is no country that can match up with our four legs. If we have four fresh legs to put up against any other four fresh legs we will be dominant.
Conway – You’re still young – 25, 26 come London. You’re currently the 5th fastest quarter miler in history. You have an Olympic title and a World title. With good health you should have 5 or more good seasons ahead of you. What are your goals for the future?
LaShawn – Just to go out and continue to work hard and enjoy what I do. That’s the main thing. If I can continue to go out and compete well, then everything will come if I just go out and do what I do. So I want more medals and just go out and have fun with this talent I’ve been blessed with. And note to myself that track and field is not a sport where you can last that long in it. So there’s a time where I will have to focus on what to do after track and I’m starting to think about that now too.
Conway – Well before we hang up, what would you like for fans to know about LaShawn Merritt?
LaShawn – That he’s an honest guy, a hard worker, and that I go out and train hard so that when I line up I can be dominant. That’s the equation. To put in the hard work so that when the lights are on you can go out and get what needs to be done, done. You train hard for that 43 seconds you race, so I just go out and get it done.
Conway – LaShawn it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for your time.
For those of you that would like to follow LaShawn during the Olympic season his Twitter is @LaShawnMerritt and his website is http://LaShawnMerrittUSA.com