Sometimes a silly mistake can cost you big. Just ask LaShawn Merritt. After double gold in Beijing for the 400 meters and 4 x 400 relay, Merritt endured a 21-month track ban for using an illegal substance. That substance? ExtenZe. (Hey, who hasn’t tried ExtenZe?) Now he’s back and trying to do what just one other Olympian has achieved, repeat at the 400 distance. But first, the Virginia native talks about staying hungry, running through pain and getting stronger. We’d listen to him.
MADE MAN: Only Michael Johnson has repeated in the 400 at the Olympics. What makes you think you can do it?
LASHAWN MERRITT: I’m still hungry. I still love to do all the training and to compete well. I think the key to being on top for a long time is staying hungry. Mike kept that hunger. He wanted to be the best track and field athlete in the world. So for me to follow in those footsteps would be a great honor. And mentally, I feel confident. I’ve been working hard, and the hard work gives a confidence. Now it’s just a matter of going in, having my coach by my side and God by my side and executing my race.
With that homestretch, you kind of train your mind and your body to be in synch, you know? You let your body know that it’s not as bad as it seems.
MM: Do you and Johnson talk much? Has he given you any advice?
LM: No, I really don’t talk to Mike. I mean, I may talk to him when I see him out at a track meet, but I don’t have his number or anything. I haven’t even seen him this year at a meet yet.
MM: Do you think he might be secretly hoping you don’t repeat?
LM: Ha ha. Hey, I don’t know, man. He set a mark, and I would think you’d want to see people who were coming up to continue that legacy. I don’t mean his legacy, but me just being a 400-meter runner from the U.S. So I would think there would be a lot of love there.
MM: You’ll be competing against the “Blade Runner,” Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee. He’s not viewed as a medal contender individually, but what are your thoughts on his Olympic journey?
LM: It’s incredible. Incredible. I know he had to run a certain time like three times to qualify for the Olympics, and he did it. He’s been through a lot. But you can tell he’s a hard worker. He’s genuine about what he does. And he’ll show up and he’ll definitely compete well.
MM: The final stretch of the 400 seems to be where the pain really kicks in. Most of us will never be in that position, but do you have any tips for pushing through pain? Like in the gym or a pickup game or something?
LM: For me with that homestretch, I do it so much in training that you kind of train your mind and your body to be in synch, you know? You let your body know that it’s not as bad as it seems. And even though it is bad, to just focus on technique and relaxation. And you can apply that to the gym or anywhere else.
MM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about track?
LM: Take care of your body. You know, you get to a point where everybody’s talented. Once all those people who just come to the Olympics to party are weeded out, you get to the people who are really serious and blessed with this talent and work hard. So then you have to take care of your body. Especially with me getting a little bit older.
MM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about life?
LM: If it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger. And that can take you a long way, right there.
MM: Speaking of that—with everything that’s happened to you in the last few years, have you gotten to a point where you can laugh about it?
LM: At this point, it’s crazy because all of my focus is on what I have ahead of me. I don’t even really think about last year. From the time my season started, the only thing I’m really thinking about is watching my race over and over. And knowing how I felt and what I could have done better. So it’s all about forward movement.
MM: It just doesn’t seem like you did anything too bad. Especially when compared to the trouble that some athletes get themselves into.
LM: Right. And for me, it’s all about, one, like I said, if it doesn’t kill you, it only makes you stronger. I feel like I’m mentally stronger. When it comes down to getting into these races, I can really block everything out and just know, all right, “This is what I’m here for. I’ve put in the work. No distractions and no stress.” And just go out and get the job done.
Follow Merritt on Twitter here.
UPDATE: Still struggling with a recent hamstring pull, Merritt pulled up in his qualifying heat. He expects to be back for Rio 2016.