The Return of LaShawn Merritt
By Jerome Langston
I absolutely hate singing the “Happy Birthday” song. I hate it. Well I don’t hate the song, actually, but I hate singing the song. And then Gail Easley, the Managing Director of the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center, decides that she wants everyone to sing the popular Stevie Wonder version of it, which is of course harder to sing than the bland original. So I look towards the object of this impromptu performance, Portsmouth’s own LaShawn Merritt, who is clearly grinning out of good natured embarrassment, while I mouth the words to Stevie’s classic, as a classroom full of middle school age students begin to sing along with Gail.
It’s a sweet moment I guess. The interior issue, for me, is that people are always assuming that I can sing. I mean like really sang. I rarely discourage that assumption, as I take it as a compliment to my speaking voice, but it puts a lot of pressure on me in group settings, when it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday.” LaShawn enjoyed it though. And that’s what counts, as it’s his actual 27th birthday. I am amazed that he agreed to an in depth interview with me, on his birthday, at the famed Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, which is also his last full day in Hampton Roads before he heads back to Florida for training.
Yet maybe it’s not that surprising considering the fact that we’re talking about LaShawn Merritt. He genuinely strikes me as a nice, relatively humble young man, who has simply dominated his event, the 400 meters, in Track and field, since his junior athlete years going back to 2004. Now it’s not like we’re friends…but my impression is based upon my observation of him during our first interview last November, and my time being spent with him today at the Attucks. I mean, he didn’t even flinch when asked to speak to a group of Easley’s students attending an arts intensive summer camp at the theatre. It was totally unplanned, yet he offered sound advice to them about respecting educators and navigating life as a productive pre-teen. His talk was short and sweet, articulate without being overly indulgent or preachy. It was classic LaShawn, as is his habit of throwing up the VA sign, (two up, two down) after winning his meets.
So we sit down for our conversation, inside one of the theatre’s posh dressing rooms. The Portsmouth native is dressed casually, rocking a fitted designer tee, along with a pair of slim fit khakis. I tell him during the interview that he looks smaller. He certainly ain’t skinny, mind you, but definitely not as “buff” as before. It’s a valid observation he assures me…the product of a smarter physical regimen enacted upon his 6’2’’ frame, by his new coaching team that keeps him leaner than when he was being trained by longtime coach, Dwayne Miller.
It seems to work for him. LaShawn is less than a week removed from winning the 400 meters at the U.S. Championships in Des Moines, Iowa. It was his 4th U.S. outdoors championships win in his event, and he won easily, with a time of 44.21 seconds. The win secures Merritt a trip to Moscow, Russia in August, to represent America at the prestigious IAAF World Championships in Athletics, running August 10-18. LaShawn’s win at Drake Stadium, though not unexpected, was still a comeback of sorts, following the huge disappointment of pulling up from a hamstring injury in a qualifying round at the London Olympic Games last year. Merritt was the defending champion in the 400 m, having won 2 gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. “Yes I wanted to represent my country…my sponsor and defend my title, but there’s another day,” the Woodrow Wilson High School graduate says, with convincing resolve. He is of course optimistic about Moscow, having gotten this far this season without any kind of nagging injury.
“My goal is just to cross the finish line first, and bring the Gold back to the U.S.” LaShawn states this so matter-of-factly, that it’s funny. Yet real talk though, his only real competition at Worlds is Kirani James, who runs for Grenada. James won gold in Merritt’s absence in London last year. He also edged Merritt at the line back in 2011, at Worlds. Still, LaShawn isn’t nervous about the rematch with Kirani, especially having beaten him at the Prefontaine Classic earlier this year. “I’m never nervous because I work too hard to be nervous,” he says both simply and confidently.
And that’s so very LaShawn. He’s never “shook” by anything. He chooses to simply “move on” when faced with adversity, even when he’s been the subject of some public ridicule. It was after years without any level of controversy, as the most successful 400 meter runner in the world, that LaShawn was stunned when he failed a drug test and endured a 21-month suspension back in 2010. He has always maintained that he purchased a male enhancement product from a convenience store. That product, unbeknownst to Merritt, contained a banned substance. His medal wins were not affected by the suspension, but it of course cast a cloud of suspicion over him for some time. I ask him if the details of the suspension were embarrassing to him.
“It was, a little bit, but not too much, because I just got over it,” he says. “It had nothing to do with my sport and how hard I work. It was something from a convenience store. I’m not the only one who goes and picks this stuff up.” He’s certainly correct about that. I also don’t believe that any man would make up that story.
Regardless, LaShawn has dealt with tougher issues, especially with the tragic loss of his older brother Antwan, back in 1999. He credits that loss with giving him proper perspective. “People are leaving this place, everyday and quick…you just got to get over whatever it is, keep working hard and keep moving forward.” Now that’s spoken like a true champion…still representing.