Before LaShawn Merritt climbed into the back of the red convertible, leading a parade held in his honor, he thought back to his childhood and how far he’s come.
“Where I grew up, there was a lot of dirt,” the four-time Olympic medalist said. “I could never keep my shoes clean. Now I have so many, I could probably wear a different pair every day.”
The world-class runner returned home Friday for the LaShawn Merritt Day Parade, and to receive a key to the city during halftime at I.C. Norcom High School’s game against his alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High.
The celebration marked another medal-winning performance for Merritt this summer at the Rio Olympics in Brazil. He won a gold medal in the 4×400-meter relay and a bronze medal in the 400-meter dash. In Beijing in 2008, he won gold in both the 4×400-meter relay and the 400-meter dash.
Draped in his Rio medals – each weighing about 5 pounds, he guessed – Merritt waved to friends, shook hands with well-wishers and caught up with people he hadn’t seen in years.
“I understand that this is bigger than me,” he said. “So to come back and see faces that I haven’t seen in years, it’s amazing.”
Several hundred people lined both sides of High Street, parked in lawn chairs, toting signs and cheering for their native son. The drumbeat of high school marching bands echoed as the caravan traveled toward Joe G. Langston Stadium.
“He’s put a small town on a world stage,” said 43-year-old Portsmouth resident Lamont Ferguson. “Being in the same category as Usain Bolt and still staying down-to-earth, that means a lot to the people here.”
Brittany Smalls, 30, said she was thrilled when Merritt’s relay team came out on top in Rio. Smalls said he ranks among Portsmouth’s most important natives.
“Just a lot of pride,” she said.
Merritt said the city’s challenges make his returns more meaningful.
“Not a lot of positive things happen around here,” he said. “So whenever I can get back and inspire others, it always feels great to do that.”
Even after competing around the world and training for much of the year in Florida, Merritt said, his heart remains in Portsmouth.
“It’s love. It’s family. It’s support,” he said. “These are the people I do what I do for.”