LaShawn Merritt profile


Running with a purpose
Merritt’s bid for Olympics 400 title linked to memory of brother

Sunday, Apr 20, 2008 - 12:07 AM

Speed, size and strength are common elements of a track champion. LaShawn Merritt owns them all. Plus, one other ingredient that’s more difficult to measure and impossible to deter: purpose.

“He’s running on a spiritual level,” said his coach, Dwayne Miller.

Perhaps the greatest high school sprinter in Virginia history at Portsmouth’s Woodrow Wilson High, Merritt, 21, runs with an emotional purpose. It’s the kind of inner propulsion that only the mysterious death of an older brother can generate . . . the sort of motivation that is driving Merritt toward the Beijing Olympics, set to open Aug. 8.

It’s the brand of determination that, Merritt hopes, can push him past 400-meter two-time world champion and 2004 Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner.

“I haven’t beat him yet,” Merritt told the Times-Dispatch recently. “But I will, and I feel I can.”

Merritt and Wariner are set to compete – but not against each other – Saturday at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. They’ll be part of a group of the nation’s top 400 racers who will participate in a 1,600 invitational relay.

They won’t square off as they did most recently at last year’s World Championships in Osaka, Japan, when Wariner (43.45) edged Merritt (43.96) and the Americans finished one-two. [EXCUSE ME, BUT 0.5sec IS MORE THAN JUST AN “EDGE” .kk]

When Merritt takes the starting line at Franklin Field, he already will have performed a private ritual. It is one he has conducted since his first track season of 2002, when he was a gangly, inexperienced sophomore at Wilson.

He will say a silent prayer. He will take the index and middle finger of his right hand and kiss them. He will point his fingers to the sky. He will think of his brother Antwan, who died Nov. 20, 1999, after being attacked in his dormitory room at Shaw University in Charlotte, N.C., and apparently leaping to his death.

Antwan was 19. LaShawn was 13. The two were inseparable.

“He was a shadow,” Brenda Merritt, LaShawn’s mother, said of her younger son’s relationship with his big brother.

Antwan was a superb trumpet player. LaShawn played trumpet. LaShawn played Little League baseball and stole a lot of bases. Antwan always watched and cheered.

Then, on that strange November night, according to published reports, an earlier scuffle spilled into Antwan Merritt’s dorm room. Prosecutors said that he was attacked, put in a headlock and, apparently, fearing for his life, leaped from his eighth-floor window. He died later. Three men were acquitted of manslaughter, and charges against two others were dismissed.

LaShawn Merritt stopped playing baseball, the sport his brother always watched, and turned to track and field. At first, he didn’t run fast or elegantly. But then Miller, who operates Norfolk’s Real Deal Track Club, saw Merritt in the summer before his junior year. He began to mold the gangly novice.

Merritt’s style and results quickly changed. By the time he was a senior, he won six indoor and outdoor state championships and won national scholastic indoor and outdoor titles in the 200 and 400. He was named the Gatorade national high school track athlete of the year.

Antwan was there, LaShawn said.

“A lot of times, I felt like I was being pushed to the finish line,” said Merritt, a 6-2 182-pounder. “It was like he was running with me. I knew he was guiding me.”

Merritt went to East Carolina University on a scholarship but soon turned pro, signing with Nike and becoming a full-time pro, and chasing Wariner.

Wariner, 24, is older than Merritt and brings more experience to the grueling 400. But Miller points out that Merritt, who now lives in Suffolk, is on the same trajectory as Wariner.

When Wariner was 21, he ran a 43.93. Merritt last summer ran 43.96. A year before, Merritt ran 44.14. At the same age, Wariner turned in 44-flat.

Miller said: “LaShawn knows that all we have to do is jump the clock a little bit. It’s the Olympic year. That’s our goal, to speed up time.”

[b]Meanwhile, Merritt has found a sweet connection to his past. He has a new nephew, born to his sister, Antionesha.

The 10-month-old boy’s name?

Antwan. [/b]

Corresponent Jay Weiner is covering the Olympics for the Times-Dispatch. You can contact him at

He has the 200m speed to beat JW.

If these motives are truly a big force in his career, I think JW is in deep trouble. Some parallels with Mike Tyson vs Buster Douglas here.