© March 26, 2009
By John Streit
LaShawn Merritt won two gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but as a child, he wasn’t aware that he possessed the ability to be a competitive sprinter.
Obsessed with football, baseball and basketball, Merritt was the same age as the many of the Virginia Beach Middle eighth-graders gathered before him when a special person lit his competitive fire.
“It was my Pop Warner football and Little League baseball coach, Coach Lathan,” said the 22-year-old Olympian, who resides in Suffolk. “His wife was my third-grade teacher, so from third grade to ninth grade he was my mentor… He pushed me at an early age and let me know whatever I wanted to do, I could do.”
Merritt hopes his story can spark a similar passion in his audience. The track star shared his method for success March 19 with both the school’s upperclassmen and its new running club, which made its debut at the Shamrock Marathon’s 8-kilometer Middle School challenge on March 21.
“I really wanted to bring in somebody who could make a difference,” said Frances Richardson, president of Beach Middle’s PTA. “A success story like that is so valuable to these kids.”
Paired with his explosive natural talent and speed, Merritt said his work ethic and determination drove him to become the world’s top-ranked 400-meter racer.
He emphasized that his formula works in all aspects of life, not just athletics.
“I am living testimony to hard work really paying off,” he said to the packed auditorium, sporting two gold medals around his neck. "Sometimes after practice, I can barely walk. Or it’s 7 a.m. and I’m hitting my alarm clock and don’t feel like getting out of bed.
“I always remember those moments when I line up to race, because I know overcoming those days got me here.”
Merritt began to run competitive track in his junior year at Wilson High School in Portsmouth.
He burst onto the scene with a state championship in the 400-meter in his first year, and won junior nationals at 17 against collegiate talent. Merritt accepted a scholarship to East Carolina University, but his performances against professionals resulted in Nike offering him a contract that included payment for his college education. Pro status makes athletes ineligible for college competition.
Under Dwayne Miller, his youth and current coach, Merritt improved his standing from fifth in the world in 2005 to first after he won the gold medal in the 400 last summer. Merritt was also a member of the United States’ gold-medal 4-by-400 meter relay team.
His personal record of 43.75 seconds in the 400 is the world’s fifth fastest. Now he has his sights on the 2009 world championship, a world record and the 2012 London Olympics.
Several of the school’s running club members were impressed by the Olympian’s visit.
“It was an honor,” said club member Edward Castillo, a seventh grader. “He’s inspired me a lot during this 8K challenge. I hope I finish strong.”
John Streit, 639-4805,