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ODU student LaShawn Merritt places first in Olympic trials

LaShawn Merritt's summer vacation got off to a fast start on Thursday, July 3 as the 21-year-old Old Dominion University student and 2008 Olympic sprinter finished first in the 400-meter dash at the United States Olympic team trials, held in Eugene, Ore.

Merritt, a junior sports management major, finished in 44 seconds flat, .2 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, fellow American Olympian Jeremy Warnier. Due to their strong finishes at the trails, both sprinters will both represent the U.S. in Beijing later this summer.

Merritt's win in Eugene follows a victory at the DKB-ISTAF Berlin 400-meter dash, in which he also narrowly edged out Warnier. Both victories were viewed as surprises among many observers, but not by Merritt.

"I wasn't really shocked," he said. "I've been training hard and working hard, so I knew my day was coming."

In the Berlin event, Merritt's time of 44.03 gave him just enough of a winning margin, coming in only .04 seconds ahead of Warnier. Warnier is the reigning Olympic gold-medalist, having placed first at the 2004 summer Olympics, in addition to winning the past two World Championship events in 2005 and 2007.

"We knew that Jeremy was going to run well, something like a 44.00, so we thought we had to beat that," said Merritt's longtime coach Dwayne Miller. Miller has been working with Merritt since their days together at Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmouth, where Miller was Merritt's summer track coach.

Merritt began to garner attention from the national track and field audience when he won the 100, 200 and 400-meter sprints at the Virginia state championships in 2004. Yet his real breakout came in 2005, when at the Powered by Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark., he ran what was then the third-fastest 400-meter indoor time in history. He was only 18 years old.

"I was the only collegian in that race, and I was a freshman," said Merritt, who was attending East Carolina at the time. "I don't think they even expected me to win, let alone run it that fast."

Miller knew early on that Merritt had the potential to be a great athlete.

"He's definitely special," Miller said. "He's fast, strong and tall. You line all those up, and you've got something."

Merritt set his best time in the 400 at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, in which he became only the ninth man in history to break the 44-second mark, turning in a 43.96. He also won a gold medal as part of the 1,600-meter relay team at that event. He finished the 2007 season ranked No. 2 in the world by Track and Field News.

Miller, who Merritt says has played a critical role in his success on the track, has also constantly emphasized the importance of getting an education. He continued to encourage Merritt to keep working toward his degree.

"I told him, 'I got one, so you have to [get a degree] too,'" said Miller, who graduated from Norfolk State University in 1988 with a BA in mass communications.

After signing an endorsement deal with Nike that terminated his amateur status, Merritt transferred from East Carolina to ODU in February 2005. In order to avoid conflicts with his training schedule, he takes the bulk of his classes in the fall, when he can more fully devote attention to his studies. He said that he's having fun dividing his time between sprinting and school, and isn't in a hurry to graduate.

"It's cool, because it lets me focus on both track and class," he said.

Merritt gives credit to Miller and his parents for encouraging him to see his education through, saying that they've been big influences in his life. He said that having Miller as a constant in his track career has been a big help, and that having someone he trusts with him is invaluable.

"He's been with me since high school," Merritt said. "Even when I went away to college, I was always calling him and asking him for advice. He hasn't just been a big influence on my training; he's been a big influence on my life, period."

Looking ahead to the 2008 Summer Olympics, Merritt remains confident, bolstered by a strong belief in his own abilities.

"This is my job; this is what I do," he said. "Every time I go out on that track, I expect to perform."

This article was posted on: July 9, 2008

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