When track fans worldwide think of the 400 meters, they think of LaShawn Merritt.
And ever since his victory at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, he’s become one of only a handful of faces in track and field.
Just not in Hampton Roads.
When the 28-year-old sprinter from Portsmouth recently walked into Panera Bread, there were no whispers, no fingers pointing at the international star in the restaurant. He went and ordered his food and picked it up with no fanfare, no autographs and no selfies.
“To come through here and nobody notices me, I don’t even look for it,” said Merritt, wearing a yellow athletic top, black sweats and black-and-red Nike sneakers. “I just take it for what it is.”
But there are many places where Merritt gets noticed. He recently attended an Atlanta Hawks basketball game.
“I was at the concession stand and people were taking pictures of me and saying, ‘Machine, Machine,’ ” he said about his new nickname. “They don’t call me that here. But in bigger markets, they know who I am.”
Merritt, who splits time between South Hampton Roads and Sarasota, Fla., when he’s not competing, just completed his 10th season as a professional. Even he’s amazed at his longevity.
He’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 400 and 1,600 relay. And he’s tied former Olympic great Michael Johnson for the third-most medals at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics with eight. Only Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and USA track legend Carl Lewis have more with 10 each.
Merritt has broken 44 seconds six times in his career, including twice last season. His personal-best time of 43.74 seconds makes him the fifth-fastest person all-time in the event.
And he’s one of only two men in the history of track and field to run less than 20 seconds in the 200 and less than 44 seconds in the 400. The other man is Johnson.
Merritt has big goals for this season, which is headlined by the 2015 IAAF World Championships. The event, which is second only to the Olympics, will be in Beijing, where Merritt had his coming-out party when he won two Olympic gold medals.
“So I got an extra chip on my shoulder going back to Beijing,” he said. “When I get there, I know I have handled business there before.”
Merritt recently signed with a new public relations and marketing firm, Tandem Sports and Entertainment, and also is involved in real estate, mentoring and helping the community. On Christmas Eve, he was handing out hats and gloves at the Oasis Social Ministry in Portsmouth.
Merritt sat with Virginian-Pilot reporter Larry Rubama and reflected on this past season, rivalries and the world record.
What was 2014 like for you?
“The best thing that came out of last year is I ran more races than I’ve ever ran before. The beauty is it was the most consistent I’ve ever been. My season went from February to September. They wanted me to run these races and they were paying me (appearance fees). I said I was going to run a lot of races this year because I won World Championships last year. I was going to capitalize financially on this year so that next year, when it really matters in 2015 and when I have to be ready toward the end of the season, I won’t have to run a lot of races. I can pick and choose my races.”
What’s it like being hunted when you’ve been the hunter for so many years?
“It’s mental. One mental part is I’m a big dog and these young boys out here… I know they have a lot of talent. But then not a lot has changed. When I was the hunter, it was something that motivated me and kept me going. And I still have that right now. I have these young guys who keep me on the top of my game. I also have my career at a point where I’m thinking about leaving a legacy.”
You and fellow American Jeremy Wariner had one of the best rivalries in track and field in the 400 a few years back. Do you see him much anymore?
“I talk to Jeremy more than I did when we were battling. We’re older now and he has a family and I talk to him as a friend. I ask him, ‘How’s your wife? How’s your kid?’ That’s how we communicate. When I see him now, the first that comes to my mind is his family because he’s in something that I’m not in, which has to take more mental stress. I understand that. When I see him, two things come to mind. The first is, ‘How you doing? How’s life? The second thing, which I may not express to him, is man, he was a beast. He used to do what I don’t do. He had what I am trying to get. What he has is that motor that keeps going. That’s what I’m trying to get because I need that in order to break the world record.”
Your new rival is 22-year-old Grenadian sprinter Kirani James. What kind of relationship do you have with him?
“It’s way different than Jeremy. Kirani is real green. He sees the opportunity he has not only for himself, but for his whole country. He understands the time he has in the sport and the impact that he can have. That’s a big difference. Kirani looks up to me. It’s like a brother relationship. But we shut it down in the blocks. Before that, in the press conference, he always talks about how much respect he has for me. There’s a lot of love there. It wasn’t like that with Jeremy.”
What’s your thoughts about Michael Johnson’s world- record time of 43.18?
“My times haven’t gotten extremely fast, but my times are consistent at 44 low, which is good enough to be No. 1 in the world right now. I haven’t really pressed it, but that’s coming up…. A lot of coaches like Brooks Johnson, John Smith and Bobby Kersee say I’m just raw talent. They say I have a lot of untapped potential. I often think what would happen if I went out of my comfort zone and really trained like crazy. And when I get into a race, when I think I need to relax that I start racing like crazy. If I look at it, I believe I can do it.”
What’s the future hold for you and where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
“I have a lot of motivation over these next couple of years with World Championships and the (2016) Olympics, so it’s exciting…. In 10 years, hopefully I’ll be married and have several businesses and be at peace and not be worried about finances. If I could have that, that’s it.”