Merritt Outkicks Wariner in 400, Takes It in Stride

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 4, 2008

EUGENE, Ore., July 3 -- It went down as a huge upset to just about everyone at Hayward Field except for LaShawn Merritt, who didn't find it surprising at all. Merritt outraced Jeremy Wariner with remarkable ease in the homestretch of the 400-meter final at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, upsetting the reigning world and Olympic champion by a couple of strides to win his first U.S. title.

The performance was a repeat of Merritt's surprise victory over Wariner at a recent Golden League race in Berlin, but it was unexpected to most here because Wariner had topped Merritt a week after the defeat and explained it away to tired legs.

Merritt had a different explanation for this victory: He's now the man to beat.

"He was the Olympic champion in '04 and the world champion a year ago," Merritt said. "This is a new year. I want to be number one -- that's what I've been training to do. . . . I've always thought I had what it takes."

Wariner has always been at his best in major championships, and talked late last week about breaking the world record. He finished in 44.20 seconds, well off his personal best of 43.45. Merritt, a part-time musician enrolled at Old Dominion University, matched Wariner's winning time in the 2004 Summer Games: 44.00.

After the defeat, Wariner -- who secured his place on the Olympic team because he was in the top three -- skipped the customary victory lap and mandatory post-race news conference for medal winners. More than an hour after the race, he took questions from a group of reporters.

"It motivates me," Wariner said. "I know I got things to work on. I got to execute my race better than I did today. . . . I was real disappointed with the way I ran."

The women's 400 final went as expected. Sanya Richards left nothing to chance, blasting off the final turn to ensure -- absolutely, positively -- that she would secure a spot on the Olympic team a year after a debacle kept her from the world championships in the event.

Richards finished in 49.89 seconds, breaking away in the homestretch to win by nearly 10 meters over Mary Wineberg (50.85) and Dee Dee Trotter (50.88), both of whom earned Olympic slots. Monica Hargrove, a 2004 Georgetown graduate and former assistant coach, finished seventh in 51.94.

But it was the men's race that left the 20,927 fans murmuring about what they had witnessed. Merritt, an East Carolina graduate from Suffolk, Va., finished second to Wariner at the world championships last summer in Osaka, Japan, and has been challenging ever since. In Thursday's race, he came off the final turn with a slight lead over Wariner, and Wariner could not seem to find any kind of burst, fading at the finish.

Indiana University's David Neville, who closed fast in the last 50 meters, claimed third in 44.61. Reggie Witherspoon was fourth in 45.01.

"I don't even know how far in the lead I was," Merritt said. "I looked over to the right once, and I looked over to the left once, and I didn't see anybody, so I just wanted to bring it home first."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company