While his sport generates headline after headline — a doping scandal here, a fight for athletes’ rights there — LaShawn Merritt is keeping his head down in order to get back on track.
“A couple weeks out from the world championships or Olympic Games,” Merritt said, “I’m in a total lockdown and focused on my task.”
That lockdown means maybe skimming a headline or two but not reading a story on the World Anti-Doping Agency leak that led to the discovery of hundreds of suspicious blood test results the world athletics governing body reportedly suppressed.
It means hearing people talk but not asking for details about disgruntled U.S. 800-meter star Nick Symmonds being left off the roster for the world championships because of a dispute with USA Track and Field over individual endorsements and apparel requirements.
Instead, the 29-year-old Merritt prepared for the 2015 IAAF World Championships— beginning Saturday in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest — in a bit of a bubble. The week before leaving for China he woke up every day at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista,Calif., and ate, trained, rested and trained again.
He kept negative people and energy at a distance, and since his bones have changed after a decade of sprinting, he stretched a little more before bedtime. That’s it.
In Merritt’s mind, that’s what he needs to do to defend his 400-meter gold medal from the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, where he was the only man to break 44 seconds and won in 43.74.
That, and run faster than he has this year. His season-best 44.36 puts him at No. 6 in the world.
Merritt, who also won gold in the 400 at the 2008 Olympic Games in the Bird’s Nest (and at the 2009 world championships in Berlin), struggled early in the season, including a third-place finish at the Diamond League stop in Shanghai in May.
Archrival and defending 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kirani James of Grenada (44.66) bested him by .92 seconds.
In the national championships in June Merritt finished second behind David Verburg.
Verburg and Kirani will be in Beijing vying for the title, along with Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who has the year’s third-fastest time (43.96). But Merritt believes his 2008 gold medal from Beijing, 7 years old though it may be, gives him an edge.
“I probably feel different than other people who are going there feel,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve been from the warm-up area to the track to looking up in the stands — it won’t be anything foreign for me; it’ll be all great memories.
“When I’m looking up and about to take off, I feel something in the back of my head will just click and say, ‘Man, you’ve been here before. You dominated. You’re years older, a couple years wiser and a lot stronger. Do it again.’”
Though he’s already won enough gold to cement his place in track and field history, Merritt isn’t racing with his legacy in mind yet. He’s moved past the 21-month drug suspension he served from 2009-2011 for inadvertently ingesting DHEA via an over-the-counter sexual enhancement drug — “It’ll always be with me, but it’s never brought up anymore,” he said — and is looking forward to going back to China, and after that, qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
As for his opinions on the current the controversies swirling around his sport: He hopes all the athletes he currently races against aren’t doping, believes they respect the sport enough to stay clean, and he hasn’t read up on Symmonds’ story enough to have an opinion.
But ask him in about 10 days, after the championships.