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IMG Academy trainee, LaShawn Merritt aims for repeat gold in 400

LaShawn Merritt, posing for a portrait at the Athletic & Personal Development program in Bradenton, Fla., will try to match Michael Johnson as the only man to repeat as Olympics 400 champion.

BRADENTON, Fla. – Here is the history LaShawn Merritt didn't want to make: He can be the first Olympic champion to serve a drug suspension between Games and return to win gold again.

Here is the history he wants: Merritt can be the second man to win two gold medals for the 400 meters. Michael Johnson, history's best, won in 1996 and 2000.

"If I win," Merritt says, and here he pauses and corrects himself. "When I win — you have to speak it into existence. These Games, you think about legacies, being the second person to win this 400 back-to-back. That would be history in the making."

There's even a way Merritt can surpass Johnson, if he can top his otherworldly world record of 43.18 seconds that has stood since 1999.

"Ultimately, I think for any athlete who can be dominant," Merritt says, "it comes down eventually to wanting the world record."

What he doesn't want are reminders of his suspension. Welsh 400 hurdler Dai Greene calls Merritt a drug cheat and scoffs at the reason Merritt says he's not.

Merritt tested positive three times in late 2009 and early 2010 but eventually proved to the satisfaction of authorities that he'd ingested the steroid derivative DHEA accidentally through use of a so-called male-enhancement product.

Greene said the story was nonsensical and told the British press that, if they face one another in the 4x400 relay, "I'll happily go and find him at the start and tell him to his face, 'You're a cheat and you shouldn't be here.' "

Merritt declines to return fire.

"I don't even have anything to say about that statement, because I'm going to continue to do what I do," he says. "Train every day, and when I line up, I'll just let my race do the talking. I'm pretty mentally tough. For me, it's just somebody else's opinion."

The opinion that counts, in Merritt's view, is the American Arbitration Association, which trusted his claim that he'd ingested DHEA through use of ExtenZe, an over-the-counter product bought at 7-Eleven. The arbiters found the testimony of the clerk who'd noticed Merritt's routine of buying it along with condoms "devastatingly convincing," and they cut his suspension to 21 months.

Even so, he remained ineligible for the Olympics because of an International Olympic Committee rule banning athletes with doping sentences longer than six months. Then, last fall, the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland ruled that the IOC ban unfairly penalized athletes twice for the same violation and restored Merritt's Olympic eligibility.

"The key point is the arbitration panel found he really wasn't at fault," says Loren Seagrave, Merritt's coach. "It was a mistake. You can't lump him into the same situation as a lot of people who were actively seeking advantage in a systematic way and trying to defraud the tests."

When USA TODAY Sports talked with Merritt about all this last winter, he said he was deeply embarrassed by the entire episode. No more. "Yeah, I'm over that now," he says. "I'm focused on getting some good training in."

The Daily Telegraph of London says Merritt "will doubtless be held up as 2012's arch-Olympic-bogeyman" — and Merritt fully expects the British news media will mock him, and his male-enhancement defense, during the Games.

"London is a hard market with media," Merritt says. "But it'll be me going there to do a job. I'm not going to let it get to me. For me, the hardest part is when people label it 'doping.'

"It's like, it wasn't doping. It was an over-the-counter substance that had an ingredients-in-it type deal. For me, I know it's going to come up. If it comes up, it comes up. It's not going to stop me from going out and working hard and doing what I do."

Repeating is no easy task

The men's 400 meters has been an Olympic event since the modern Games began in 1896. So how come Johnson is the only man to repeat as Olympic 400 champ in parts of three centuries?

"It's a unique combination of speed, power and endurance," Seagrave says. "One mistake, even though we're talking about 44 seconds, one small mistake can cost you. And the type of training that you have to do for this event is the kind of training that could potentially set you up for injury."

Last week, Merritt pulled up in a Diamond League 400 in Monaco when he felt a twinge in his left hamstring, but he said afterward he expected to be fully fit for London.

Seagrave is director of speed and movement for the Athletic & Personal Development program in Bradenton, which Merritt has made his home training base since January. He's had access to full-time physiotherapists, athletic trainers, nutritionists and mental conditioning coaches. High-speed cameras record his workouts, allowing Seagrave to break down Merritt's every move.

"He (previously) was up in Virginia working with his coach," Seagrave says. "And they were doing a lot of good things. He might have had a massage therapist, and his uncle was a chiropractor. But a lot of the other things, he really didn't have.

"He's enjoying this whole process. He's learning why he's doing what he's doing and how it's going to get him to the finish line faster. He really tries to understand his body, tries to understand his race. He's hungry to know."

The computer study allows Seagrave and Merritt to make changes in his form that can save fractions of seconds, which can be all the difference at this level.

"You've got to eliminate the dangle time," Seagrave says. "The more the thigh lags behind the body, the slower you are. So you've got to pop the thigh forward aggressively, which he is doing really well right now."

Merritt's form isn't the only one they study. Seagrave says they break down other 400 runners, including Johnson.

"We just looked at Michael's race last week in terms of, 'How did he do it?' " Seagrave says. "What was the strategy used? Where are the tactics? When did he put the hammer down? What was the technique? What might he have been thinking about relative to that last run home?"

Merritt won the 400 in the U.S. Olympic trials in 44.12 seconds, best in the world this season. That makes him a favorite going into London. He thinks as long as he runs his race that no one can beat him.

"The great ones take this approach," Seagrave says, "that 'the only one out there who can beat me today is me.' "

'He's quiet. But he can run'

Brenda Stukes, Merritt's mom, told her son not to worry about Greene's comments.

"People are going to say what they want to say," Stukes says. "LaShawn won't say anything back. Honestly, I know my son. He's quiet. But he can run."

Stukes says she keeps his gold medals from Beijing's 400 and 4x400 relay at her home in Virginia's Tidewater region. Merritt doesn't want them on display.

"Once I retire and I'm done, I'll probably bring my medals out," he says. "But I'm still in it. I want to act like I haven't really won a lot, to not focus on what I've done but on what I'm going to do. Keep them away. Just another race I ran and won. Now I'm trying to go to this next race and win this next race."

Who is the greater opponent in this next race — Merritt's competitors in the 400 or Johnson and his elusive 43.18?

Merritt pauses as he considers.

"It'll be the people in the race," he says at last. "For me, it's win first. If it's rainy and windy, you're not going to run that race as if it's sunny. So you may not win the Olympics with a fast time. It might not be that type of day. But you have to win."

And what would it mean if he does?

"It would mean he is one of the most accomplished 400-meter runners that the world has ever seen, standing next to Michael Johnson," Seagrave says. "What would really be phenomenal is if he shows up in Rio (in 2016) and wins it a third time."

Coaches usually don't bring up a three-peat before a repeat is sealed.

"You have to be in the present," Seagrave says, "but always look to the future. He's a relatively young guy. And he does a great job of taking care of his body. He's got the capacity to do that."

Has he talked to Merritt about that?

"Nope," Seagrave says, laughing. "I want him to stay in the here and now."

Has Merritt thought about winning in Rio? "Of course," Merritt says, smiling. "I'm only 26, so the next one I'll only be 30. And 30 is young; 30 is the new 20."

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