- Luke Cyphers
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The man on the track was his usual dominant self, with his usual laconic look.
LaShawn Merritt had just taken care of business at the U.S. Olympic trials, winning the 400 meters and stating clearly with his time of 44.12 seconds that he is not to be messed with in London.
He sat next to a pair of feel-good stories at his post-victory news conference: Tony McQuay, a Florida college kid who finished second and helped keep his idol, once-great Jeremy Wariner, from making the team; and Bryshon Nellum, the Southern California student whose career nearly ended four years ago when gang members filled his legs full of buckshot.
The kids were trying to be cool, but just couldn't suppress their joy. Merritt reminded everyone, though, that this wasn't the main event. London, the 2008 gold medalist said, "will be a big-boy race."
This is the LaShawn Merritt the track world has come to know -- a man perfectly suited for the event with a sprinter's speed to go out fast and the endurance to keep it together for the torturous final 150 meters; the man with the sad backstory and stony demeanor who intimidates even the toughest runners in track's most demanding race.
He runs his races for his brother, Antwan, who died in a fall from a college dorm window in 1999, and runs them well, posting the two fastest times of the year so far. He is one of his sport's greatest talents and delivers with ruthless consistency.
But it's not the whole picture. Yes, Merritt wants a world record, but he wants something more.
"Sometimes I look at TV, at the acting," he said, "and I feel like, I could do that."
In the past year, "I could do that" has turned into "I really want to do that."
Merritt, 26, has trips to Los Angeles planned this fall for some meetings within the industry. "People are saying I might have it," he laughed.
He definitely has the bug. "If you were a fly on the wall at my house, you would see me talking a little bit, repeating what's going on on TV just to see how I sound," he said. "I think I can do some comedy, some action, even a love story."
He also likes quirky. "I love 'House,'" he said. And he's obsessed with Tony Shalhoub in "Monk." "I want to meet that guy," he said. "I wonder how he really is."
Merritt's cool track presence and his yen for the small screen aren't as incongruous as they might appear. As a runner, Merritt performs best in front of an audience. "I've never run 44 seconds in practice," he said, referring to the benchmark for the top 400 runners in the world.
When told he sounds like another great athlete from Merritt's home state of Virginia who goes by the name of Allen Iverson, Merritt howls with laughter and right on cue delivers the line: "You talkin' about practice?!"
But Merritt is serious. "I don't know why, but, when I'm at practice, I can never run fast," he said. "When I get into a competition and the lights hit me, it's like a totally different person."
That's not to say Merritt avoids working at his craft. He's a supreme technician. "I break down my race a lot," he said. "Hit this spot at this time, this next spot here. I know just where I need to be for each segment of the race."
He'll talk all day about cerebral aspects of the 400, from knowing where the lactic acid will start to invade his muscles to how a small difference in a foot's landing angle can consume more energy early in a race and ultimately lead to slower times. But he is no automaton. He showed his ability to adjust last year during the anchor leg of the 4x400-meter relay at the world championship in Daegu, South Korea. Finding himself boxed in with about 100 meters to go, Merritt skipped outside and out of trouble, then overtook Jamaica's Leford Green and South Africa's L.J. van Zyl in the home stretch.
"I called it the Virginia Shuffle," Merritt said.
That little dance move might come in handy on a soundstage one day. It announced to the world that Merritt was returning to his form from 2008 and 2009 after his career was nearly derailed by a positive test for a banned substance. He tested positive in winter 2009 for dehydroepiandrosterone, a steroid precursor better known as DHEA, and pregnenolone, another banned substance, and was handed a two-year ban from the sport. But IOC rules also called for him to sit out the next Olympics, even though he was to finish his suspension before the Games.
As much as any doping test can shock the Olympic sports world, Merritt's positive test surprised almost everyone. His progression in the 400 was utterly logical; he was an acknowledged phenom as a teenager and nearly as talented in the 200 (he ran 19.98 in 2007) as in the quarter-mile. His times fell in increments as he steadily gained on, then surpassed, Wariner. Merritt said he was more surprised than the rest of the world. He bought something at a convenience store that was supposed to be a sexual aid, a purported penis-enlargement supplement called ExtenZe, not knowing the pro-hormone it contained. "I was a regular 22-year-old making 22-year-old decisions," he said.
He also said he gained no competitive edge. "No levels were elevated to the point where I had an advantage, but it was just something that was on the list," he explained. "If you eat too many poppy seeds, you can test positive, so every case is not an intentional doping case."
He appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And, thanks largely to the testimony of a 7-Eleven clerk who recalled selling Merritt the supplement, CAS shortened his ban from 24 months to 21 and later ruled he should be allowed to compete in the London Olympics.
Since rejoining the circuit in late July 2011, he's spoken about the ban with some of his rivals, among them Britain's Martyn Rooney, Belgium's Borlee twins, Kevin and Jonathan, and Jamaica's Jermaine Gonzales. He senses no resentment from them.
"I think last year, a couple of my competitors maybe looked at me a little funny," he said. "But they know I wouldn't cheat them, just like I wouldn't want them to cheat me. I'm just not that type of person. They know what it takes and the abilities that I have, with this natural speed I have."
Although he might not have lost the respect of his competitors, Merritt's close loss to 19-year-old Kirani James of Grenada in the 400 final at Daegu raised questions of another sort: Would Merritt be able to retake his crown from the new king James? Merritt thinks he knows the answer.
"I got beat at a competition by three-hundredths of a second," he said of the Daegu race. "I ran 44.3 my second race [in a heat], which was the fastest anybody ran the whole year. I came back right at the world championship, just as everybody was in tip-top shape, and got nipped at the line. That looks pretty good to me. I'm fine."
Overall, Merritt shows almost no bitterness about nearly having his livelihood taken away from him by a dime-store love potion. He certainly won't dwell on it. "Honestly, in this world, things happen that you don't intentionally want to happen or you don't try to make happen."
What Merritt has made happen since the suspension is a near-complete comeback. He moved to Florida this past winter and switched coaches, training under Loren Seagrave at the IMG Academy to block out as many distractions as he could in the Olympic year. The Bradenton setting's total-sports focus was just what he needed. He'd see 10-year-old tennis players training at 6:30 in the morning. At his disposal were nutritionists, massage therapists and high-caliber facilities. He has used them to put distance between himself and the rest of the world;
the second-best 400 runner this year, Luguelin Santos of the Dominican Republic, was more than a third of a second behind Merritt's best time. And Merritt said there's more where that came from.
"I don't feel like I'm a 44-second guy," said Merritt, whose personal record of 43.75 is the fifth-fastest ever. "I'm a 43 guy who runs 44 as he's getting into shape."
That "43 guy" looks ready to take the stage in London to defend his gold medal, which is the season's primary goal. After that, if things feel right, he'll take conscious aim at Michael Johnson's world record (43.18).
It will be almost as though the suspension never happened, although he acknowledges that some good came of it. It brought him even closer to his extended family -- Team Merritt, as he calls it -- which has long given him strength and helped him cope with the tragedy of his brother's death.
The time away from the circuit also gave him something he hadn't had before.
"It was the first time I actually was home since I was 18 and turned pro," he said. "I had time to sit back and really learn about myself, as opposed to traveling here and there and just training all day. I spent a lot of time with my family, friends -- just getting to know myself."
And watching TV. He talks about "Monk" again, "how he goes outside the character sometimes to be another character."
The man who is so stoic on the track is intrigued by trying on different personas. "Maybe I'll be a weird actor, like, 'Who is this guy?'" Merritt said. "But interesting -- weird but interesting."