Humbled Merritt still shooting for the stars
LaShawn Merritt is pursuing equilibrium just as much as he is chasing the medals and records that he hopes will cement his legacy as a sprint great.
Having experienced the vertiginous highs of winning medals at the Olympic Games and the crushing low of a perceived doping injustice, Merritt's mission to maintain emotional stability is perhaps unsurprising.
The American was just 22 when he won two golds in Beijing in the 400 metres and 4?x?400 relay before becoming world champion in his favoured event in Berlin a year later.
He then hit rock bottom just as quickly as he had reached the top after failing a drug test — the result of using a substance in a male enhancement pill — and was banned for 21 months.
Merritt has used words such as “foolish, immature and egotistical” to describe that mistake; character flaws he has since worked hard to eradicate from his personality.
“In this sport and in life I never try to get too high or too low at anything I do,” said Merritt, who will compete at the Bermuda Invitational Area Permit Meet at the National Stadium tonight.
“I've won Olympic medals, several world championships, but there's always another year and no room to get complacent or get on such a high.
“As quick as you get high, you can get low. It's important to stay humble and keep doing the hard work.”
Merritt is still adamant he was “made an example of” and that the punishment did not reflect his “accidental” crime.
He is not bitter, though.
“I started in the business early and mistakes I made on and off the track are just part of being human,” he said.
“I definitely don't feel like what I got was deserved. When I came back to the sport a lot of coaches, athletes and agents said to me, ‘Man, they really made an example out of you'.”
Merritt “Mark II” has been almost as successful as the original version. However, at 31, despite being one of the world's fastest men, he accepts that Father Time will eventually catch up with him. He just hopes the old man with the scythe and hourglass can be delayed until he has achieved his remaining ambition of setting a world record.
“The big thing now is to stay healthy and train hard,” said Merritt, who won bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I definitely want that world record one day. I've had great years, undefeated seasons, gold medals and everything, but I still don't feel like I've put the perfect race together.
“I'm still looking to leave a legacy in this sport.”
Merritt “still feels great” and holds training partner Justin Gatland, who won gold in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as a source of inspiration.
“Justin is 36 and I see him every day putting in the work,” said Virginia-born Merritt.
“We have a different mentality; he has a warrior mentality and I think that helps with his longevity.
“I'm more of a relaxed guy. I know I'm only going to be able to do this for a certain amount of time, so I need to give it my all. That's my approach. When my time is up, my time is up.”
Although Merritt is comfortable as the star attraction, he appears absent of ego and said his objective tonight was twofold — to dust off the cobwebs as he prepares for Diamond League and to put on a show.
“I understand why I am what they want me to be,” he said. “I don't need it, though. I don't need an ego type of a deal. I just plan to come out and put a race together from the gun to the finish.
“Hopefully, I can enjoy myself here and they enjoy me being here and will invite me back.”
Merritt made time yesterday afternoon to meet some of island's up-and-coming athletes at the National Stadium.
“When I was these guys age all I was thinking about was baseball,” Merritt said. “I only started running the 400 at 16 and turned pro at 18.
“I'll tell them if they have a dream do everything they can to maximise it. They are lessons and rules that can help you along the way like being respectful, honest and accountable — some basic core principles on life. Track-and-field can mould you for the rest of your life.”
If the words he planned to share with Bermuda's aspiring young athletes is anything to go by then Merrit is just a few hundredths of a second away from achieving the Zen-like state he is sprinting towards.