EUGENE, Ore. –The 200-meter is where Justin Gatlin and LaShawn Merritt meet in the middle of two very different doubles at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“I remember in the semis LaShawn came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, this is pretty fun. This is only half of my real race,’” Gatlin said. “I said, ‘Thanks, LaShawn.’”
Gatlin became the first athlete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field to win two events, capturing the 200-meter to go along with his 100-meter title. Gatlin ran 19.75 seconds Saturday to edge Merritt, the 400-meter champion, who ran 19.79.
Ameer Webb was third in 20.00.
Both Gatlin and Merritt made their third Olympic teams. Gatlin won the gold at the 2004 Olympic Games in the 100 and the bronze in the 200. In London four years ago, he won the bronze in the 100.
Merritt is the 400-meter champion from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Noah Lyles set the national high school record with a time of 20.09 for fourth place while fellow high-schooler Michael Norman was fifth at 20.14. Tyson Gay, the former world champion, was sixth at 20.38.
Merritt still has the world-leading time of 19.74 seconds, which he set in the semifinals. He came into the meet with a world-leading 19.78 in an early-season meet in the Bahamas. Gatlin moved ahead of Webb into second place, giving Team USA the top three performers on the world list.
Merritt also set the world-leading time in the 400 of 43.97 seconds on July 3, the same day Gatlin ran a world-leading 9.80 in the 100.
Gatlin was part of the last U.S. sweep in the men’s 200: At the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, Shawn Crawford won the gold, Bernard Williams the silver and Gatlin the bronze.
“This was a weird-feeling 200,” Gatlin said. “You had guys who dropped down from the 400 to come down here and stumble into the 200, then you’ve got these high school phenoms coming up and Ameer Webb in a breakout year. You didn’t know how to take it – the only way was to make sure you stay focused in yourself and go out and run the best race you can run.”
Gatlin was in Lane 8 – a result of losing to Norman in the semifinals – which meant he couldn’t see any of his competitors around the curve.
“I was like this is what it’s like getting beat by a high schooler,” he said.
Gatlin treated the race like a glorified time trial.
“I just ran, basically, for my life,” he said. “I felt LaShawn’s long legs coming on the homestretch and felt him on the last 40-50 meters. I had a flashback to 2015, ‘Oh man, keep your composure, stay with it and dive at the right time.’”
At the 2015 world championships in Beijing, Gatlin was leading the 100 when Jamaica’s Usain Bolt came alongside him. Gatlin broke down and Bolt won the race.
“It felt good to be able to relive that moment and do the right things,” Gatlin said.
He and Merritt have known each other since high school. “It’s an honor to race against him in the 200,” Gatlin said. “In the Bahamas in 2013, he beat me, and I said, ‘Aw man, I gotta get him back,’ but it’s good. I had a great time running today.”
Merritt said his semifinal felt smoother, but after all, he’s still learning the mechanics of the race.
“It’s still a little foreign to me,” he said,” but I have some speed and I have some endurance. I have to figure out some things if I really want to be a contender.”
Merritt said he runs some 200s every year at the start of the season, but his main focus in Rio is the 400 – “to go in and do what I do and what I love, which is the 400.”
Merritt had three days between the final of the 400 and the start of the 200 at the trials, but in Rio, there is only one day in between – a schedule which is still better than the one Allyson Felix will face as she attempts the same double. Felix, who has already qualified for the 400, will run the final of the 200 on Sunday.
Merritt and his coach will adjust his training to accommodate the shorter event, but he said it will also help him in the full lap race. Merritt suffered a hamstring strain in his heat at the London 2012 Olympic Games and the U.S. had no finalists in the event.
“It teaches me how to handle the curve a little bit with that much velocity,” Merritt said. “I was happy I was able to handle it as well as I did and my body feels great. It’s definitely some good speedwork for the quarter.”
Webb was glad to outrun the young guys, who are the future of the sport with Gatlin 34 years old and Merritt 30.
“Those guys (Michael Norman and Noah Lyles) are great,” said Webb, who is 26. “I haven’t ever seen times like that from high schoolers. Coming into this, I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got to get out on some high schoolers.’ I’m not trying to lose to high schoolers either. Basically that was it for me.”
Now they have to outrun Bolt, who was not in top form for the Jamaican Trials, but has won the last two Olympic 200-meter races and holds the world record of 19.19 seconds.
“I’ve raced him in a 200, and he’s beaten me in a 200,” Merritt said. “He’s raced me in the 400 and I beat him in Kingston one year. We’ve lined up – he’s human, everybody’s human. I look at him, well, he runs really fast in the 200.
“You take it a round at a time. The biggest thing is being able to execute a race. I’m looking forward to really figuring out how to execute a race.”
Gatlin probably hopes he doesn’t.