So Fast, So Young - East Carolina's LaShawn Merritt
So Fast, So Young - East Carolina's LaShawn Merritt
by Tom Borish (2/21/05)
Right in front of his eyes, Alleyne Francique of Grenada saw his collegiate indoor record in the 400 meters go down.
This wasn't from a seasoned veteran who was in his fourth year of college, this was from an 18-year old freshman by the name of LaShawn Merritt of East Carolina University.
Francique, who held the previous collegiate indoor 2-lap record of 45.35 while at Louisiana State in 2002, placed fourth overall behind Merritt who claimed the race in 44.93 seconds at the Powered by Tyson Invitational on February 11 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Merrit's win in front of a national televised audience on ESPN2 set a new indoor collegiate and world junior (19-and-under) record.
It was also the third-fastest indoor 400 meter time in world history.
Michael Johnson's world record of 44.63, set in 1995, and Johnson's 1996 time of 44.66 are the only two performances which are faster.
"Knowing that I ran the third-fastest time in history behind the great Michael Johnson makes me feel great," said Merritt. Pleased, but reserved, Merritt indicated that even better things will come.
"The thing about it is, this is only my second year of competing on an indoor track. I am just going to keep training and focus on what I have coming up next."
The very next day at the Tyson Invitational, Merritt went on to win the 200 meters in 20.40 seconds, which also set a new indoor world junior record.
The two-time United States Track Coaches Association and USA Track Field Athlete of the Week met the NCAA automatic qualifying standard on both occasions.
Who is LaShawn Merritt?
A 2004 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School in Portsmith, Virginia, Merritt entered his first semester of college with a long list of accolades that any student-athlete would take.
Merritt had a tremendous summer of 2004 on the track. He was named the Verizon Outstanding Athlete of the Meet at the 2004 USA Junior Championships after he completed a double in the 200 (20.72) and 400 meters (46.80) where his wins set him up for success at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy.
During his tenure in Italy, Merritt won gold in the men's 400 meters (45.25 seconds), 4x100m relay (38.66) and 4x400m relay (3:01.09), with the relays breaking world junior records.
"It was a wonderful experience and honor," said Merritt after describing his accomplishments.
"I really enjoyed going overseas and competing. The 200 and 400 meter double was just something I had to do if I wanted to really be known. I just went out there and did what I have fun doing."
For his efforts, Merritt was named the 2004 Verizon Youth Athlete-of-the-Year by USA Track & Field.
Now in college
with a long list of schools to choose from, Merritt thought hard about where he wanted to spend his academic and athletic skills. East Carolina University was an easy decision for Merritt who has flourished well under head coach Bill Carson.
"East Carolina has had its share of 400 meter runners and that is the event I was going to school for," said Merritt on why he chose to enroll at ECU.
"Also, I didn't want to go to far away from home and not too close. The 2-hour distance is perfect."
Under Carson's direction, ECU athletes have advanced to the NCAA National Championship in 15 of the last 16 years. His program has produced 65 All-Americans and 33 individual event champions at IC4A, Colonial Athletic Association, or Conference USA Championships.
"Coach Carson told me what he could fix when I got here and that could get me faster," said Merritt about his coach and mentor.
"The same things he said were the same things I was thinking. So I decided to give it a shot. When I came on my visit here I felt comfortable. I'd say 75% of my choice was about being comfortable."
Most recently, Carson was the U.S. team's sprint coach at the World Junior Championships in Italy last summer where he also coached Merritt to his victories.
When preparing for each meet, Merritt "pictures how I want the race to go" and it seems to be working just fine so far.
This season and beyond
With the third-fastest performance ever on the indoor circuit, Merritt will be the favorite for the 400 meter title at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas on March 11-12.
"I just want to head into the NCAA meet and leave it on the track," he said after being asked what his goals are for this season.
"I want to go out and be focused on whichever event I am doing and give it 100%. I want to go as far as God allows me to go."
It could be one of the deepest fields in the history of the NCAA Indoor Championships with athletes such as Darold Williamson of Baylor, Kelly Willie of LSU and Kerron Clement of Florida.
Williamson and Willie both earned Olympic gold medals from the US 4x400 meter relay win in Athens, Greece this past summer.
The last time a freshman won the NCAA indoor title at 400 meters was Rickey Harris of Florida in 2001.
When asked if Merritt was intimidated at all by the upperclassmen sprinters in the sport, he simply replied "no."
It's been a long time since we've seen such a gifted young sprinter in LaShawn Merritt. Time is something that Merritt will continue to chase and for an 18-year old, he's handling the pressure quite well.