Sprinter LaShawn Merritt won gold at the 2008 Olympics, taking home the top honors in the 400 and 4×400 relay. He was a favorite to win again in 2012, but injured his hamstring two weeks before the track and field events at the London Games. As a result, he didn’t qualify for the 400m final, forced out after just one round.
But Merritt is poised to make a comeback this year at the Rio Games. At the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on Sunday, he qualified for the big games, claiming a first-place victory in the men’s 400 with a 43.97-second time. That’s a whole 0.76 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Gil Roberts.
“I train 24 hours a day,” the 30-year-old told reporters, including PEOPLE, at the media summit in Los Angeles. “Training isn’t just physical out on the track. I’m on the track maybe two hours, I’m in the gym maybe an hour and a half, but mentally, I’m always locked in. It’s all day.”
“Rest is training,” Merritt continued. “You can’t keep wearing your body out without repairing it through rest. So I understand the power in rest and I sleep a lot anyways. Rest, recovery and work hard.”
On the track, the runner has been training with 82-year-old coach Brooks Johnson, who Merritt said brings “a lot of wisdom” to the process. “He’s really passionate about the sport,” he explained.
Johnson has also been riding Merritt on his diet. “My coach is always talking about going to the grocery store and getting the colors of the rainbow,” Merritt detailed. “So I eat a lot of fruit, I eat a lot of fish, vegetables, just the basic normal stuff most athletes eat to fuel their body.”
That doesn’t mean Merritt doesn’t have his cheat days – though he makes sure to indulge in moderation. “I love fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. A guilty pleasure, I guess,” he admitted. “It’s all about self-discipline. I can eat them every day if I wanted to, but for me it’s just the taste of it. Once a week, maybe, I might just throw three in the oven. And the three is just so I can get that taste of it – right before I go to bed, too. That may not be the best thing, but I burn enough energy that three cookies won’t hurt me.”
While he’s focused on his Olympic glory, Merritt is also thinking of victory beyond the Rio Games – mainly, nabbing a world record. “I’ve been on top of the sport for a long time,” he said. “This is my tenth year as a professional. I’ve won some gold medals, I’ve had the undefeated season – but I haven’t got that world record yet. So that’s what we’re aiming towards these next couple of years.”
Merritt called his family, who live in his hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, a “big support system.” While they can’t always make it to meets, he knows they’re always watching – especially his mom.
“Growing up, my mom did a lot for me, even to this day. She was always the one that would tell me, in any sport that I played, to go out and have fun. She’d always say that, ‘Just go have fun.’ So I’m having fun and living the dream.”
And when things get tough, he reminds himself of his older brother, who passed away in 1999.
“[He’s] not here to do anything,” he said. “So I make the best out of every day and I’m always about forward movement. Things happen, you move forward, you enjoy life and maximize opportunities that you have.”
“My family keeps me humble. That’s where I get my sense of peace,” he said.