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Sports

Merritt Goes for Gold Again

He's been expelled from his sport for more than a year, too

U.S. track and field athlete LaShawn Merritt poses for photos at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit in Beverly Hills, California, photo: AP/Jae C. Hong, File
1 year ago

EUGENE, Oregon — Sprinter LaShawn Merritt has won a pair of Olympic gold medals and might take home a few more before his career is over.

He’s been expelled from his sport for more than a year, too.

The man who has seen both the pinnacle and the bottom is working on his next chapter on the track — but also thinking ahead. Merritt, who turned 30 last Monday, owns a trucking business, a day care and is working on starting up a counseling center in his hardscrabble hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia.

“I’m not someone trying to reinvent the wheel,” said the sprinter, who tries to secure his Olympic spot in the 400 meters Sunday. “But I don’t want to be the guy who’s an Olympic gold medalist, and also broke. That happens a lot in the U.S.”

Track stars, even those who enjoy long careers and win Olympic gold medals the way Merritt has, are not guaranteed millions, the way so many football, baseball and basketball players are in the United States.

There are always athlete rights movements — currently best reflected in efforts spearheaded by 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds — to give sprinters and throwers a bigger share of the pie from licensing deals negotiated by the U.S. Olympic Committee and track’s governing bodies.

Merritt is working outside the system, well aware that track and field will only take him so far.

“It goes by fast, and you definitely have to set yourself up for afterward,” he said. “A lot of guys finish the sport and they don’t know what they’re going to do, not just for money, but for things to just do. They go into coaching. I think I’d be a great mentor, but I don’t want to coach, day-to-day.”

One of Merritt’s businesses currently includes five 18-wheelers that haul freight long distances.

He also wants to run counseling centers for poor parents and kids, the struggles of whom he witnessed far too often growing up in a poor part of southeast Virginia. Merritt also suffered his own tragedy, when his older brother, Antwan, fell to his death out of a dorm-room window in 1999. It might help explain the sprinter’s compassion for those less fortunate.

“If I can get this together to be able to get great people together to mentor these kids, then come in and use my influence, it’s something that needs to be done,” he said. “The trucking thing, that just makes sense. But the counseling thing is something that needs to be done.”

Merritt’s career has seen its share of ups and downs.

In 2008, he had a back-and-forth rivalry going with American Jeremy Wariner, and he beat Wariner in Beijing by a whopping 0.99 seconds to take the gold medal. Merritt followed up in 2009 by beating Wariner at world championships, as well.

But in 2010, Merritt failed drug tests — the result of using a banned substance found in a male-enhancement product. A humiliation, he called it, and he was banished for 21 months. Reinstated in time for the London Olympics, he went into those games nursing a tender hamstring and didn’t make it out of the qualifying round.

Things have gotten better.

He came into this year’s Olympic trials with the world’s fastest time in 2016 at 200 meters — not his preferred distance — opening up the possibility that he could join Allyson Felix in going for the 2-4 double in Rio. Merritt said he’ll decide on whether to pursue the 200 after qualifying for the 400 is over Sunday night.

His plans for the long-term future are better laid out.

“It’s definitely about more than running for me,” he said. “It’s about maximizing these opportunities and setting myself up for the second chapter of my life.”

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