Feature09 Aug 2012

Merritt is the 'Big Dude' in London


Aries Merritt of the United States crosses the finish line to win gold in the Men's 110m Hurdles Final on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

What started with a dare culminated in an Olympic gold medal. Aries Merritt was a common or garden sprinter back in his freshman year in High School. Turning up early for training one afternoon with Reggie Witherspoon, who would go on to win 4x400m relay gold in Beijing 2008, his pal dared Merritt to jump a nearby fence.

"I said, I can do that; he said, ain’t no way you’re jumping that fence. So I went for it, just as the coach arrived, and saw me. He said, right, from now on, you’re a hurdler. That’s how it started".

Like the 100 metres, the high hurdles passes in a blur, even for the practitioners. The only question that briefly floored Merritt at the press conference following his victory was when someone asked him to talk us through the race. He had to pause for reflection before admitting he couldn’t really remember very much.

"I got a decent start, halfway through I heard this loud yell (Robles pulling up injured in the adjacent lane). Then when I touched down off the tenth hurdle, I ran for the line as hard as I could."

It has taken some time for Merritt to break through into the top senior strata. After a successful college career, a long undefeated run and fast times, added to which he won the World Junior title as far back as 2004, it looked as if Beijing should have been his year.

"In 2008, my grandmother passed away, it affected me a lot, and I wasn’t ready for the Trials. Emotionally I wasn’t right. I finished fourth; in the end it was a blessing.

"This is the first season I’ve not had an injury, I’ve been healthy the whole season. I’ve been able to train the whole time. In the past, I’ve had to have two weeks off, a month off; and that obviously affects you. This time I’ve been able to train all through, and that’s made the difference."

The mid-race injury to Robles was a reminder that the high hurdles is an event with a high attrition rate. Since winning the World title in 2005, Ladji Doucouré of France has been just a shadow of his former self; and finished last in his semi-final here. But Liu Xiang is probably the most prominent example of dashed hopes. Unable to defend his title in Beijing, he crashed out again in his heat in London. Merritt had some kind words for the Athens champion.

"We were all disappointed for Liu, he’s an amazing athlete; it’s always an honour to compete against him. He’s a great guy, and a phenomenal athlete. It was a tragedy he couldn’t compete here."

On the discount side, our colleague Yang Ming, Athletics Correspondent for Xinhua agency tells us that Liu has been getting a battering in social media back home in China. "A lot of people think he was faking, they are very angry," said Yang. Which goes to show that, unlike the new Olympic champion, there’s a lot of folks out there who just don’t realise how hard an event the hurdles is.

As Merritt added, "Everyone has their time in the hurdles. It was Jason’s time last year (referring to last year’s world champ, Jason Richardson, silver this time).

"Everyone has their moment, when they’re on fire, and just sizzling. This is my time. I’m really pleased the race came to an end with me as the Big Dude, the champion. I know I may never get this opportunity again. I feel blessed."

Merritt has run a string of 12.93s recently, and sure enough, as he dipped through the line, the clock stopped at….. 12.93; but only for a moment. It was quickly amended to 12.92, a new best for Merritt, and just a hundredth off the Olympic best, set by Liu when he won in Athens.

"To run that time into a headwind (-0.3mps) was pretty good. I was glad to finally get under 12.93."

Pat Butcher for the IAAF
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