Sprinter LaShawn Merritt could pull a double in Rio

LaShawn Merritt insisted he runs the 200-meter dash only for variety and that his heart belongs to the 400, in which he won Olympic gold in 2008 and earned a ticket to Rio de Janeiro by finishing first at the U.S. track and field trials. The 200 “isn’t really a serious thing for me,” he said, even though he owns the fastest time in the world this year at that distance.

After his easy, wind-aided 20.09 in the rain Thursday at Hayward Field in the first round of the 200, it’s mind-boggling to imagine what he might do if he decided to take it seriously.

Merritt won his heat with the third-fastest time overall, behind Noah Lyles’ wind-aided 20.04 and the wind-aided 20.06 recorded by USC recruit Michael Norman of Vista Murrieta High, who was holding back down the stretch. But Merritt downplayed his performance.

“I got off the curve well, and I knew if I got off the curve ahead of them or with them I could just work the different zones on the straightaway,” he said. “It wasn’t a hard race. It was only half of my race. It felt smooth, so that’s the most important part.”

Merritt, whose 19.78 in April is the fastest 200 time in 2016, said he hasn’t decided whether he will attempt a 200-400 double in Rio if the opportunity arises. American Michael Johnson is the only man to have won gold in the 200 and 400 at the same Games. 

“Somebody did it, that means it can be done again, I guess,” Merritt said. “My love is the quarter. I love the quarter. There are goals I still haven’t reached in the quarter yet, so that’s my main focus.”

He’s eyeing Johnson’s world record of 43.18, set in 1999. Running the 200 could help him get it. 

“I don’t really train to run the curve that fast so that’s the most difficult part of my race,” Merritt said. “I’m getting it. I can learn how to run it here in the 200, it may make my quarter a little better.”

Trials 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin, who advanced with a wind-legal time of 20.36, believes Merritt can pull off the 200-400 double in Rio. “If anybody can do it, LaShawn can do it,” Gatlin said. “To watch him run, it’s amazing…. I know he’s got it in the tank.”

Tyson Gay, who missed a Rio spot in the 100 when he finished fifth in the final here, advanced in the 200 with a wind-aided 20.36.

Advancing with a minimum of complications was the mission for many runners Thursday.

Brenda Martinez of Rancho Cucamonga, a victim of the tangled-legs mess in the 800 on Monday, moved on to the semifinals of the 1,500 by winning her heat — the slowest — in 4 minutes 23.48 seconds. She cried for a while after losing her chance in the 800, which she considered her best event, but her mood switched quickly from sadness to determination to make the best of things.

“There’s been so many times in my life where I felt sorry for myself and that got me nowhere, so why waste your time doing that?” she said. “The 800 is already set and I’m happy for those girls. Now I have the 15, which is an opportunity for me to kind of redeem myself, I would say.”

Kim Conley also had to adjust her plans after she fell so far back in the 10,000-meter final last Saturday that she stepped off the track to conserve energy for a shot in the 5,000. That strategy served her well Thursday, when she won her preliminary heat in 15:40.04 and advanced to Sunday’s final.

Having seen her training partner, trials 800-meter winner Kate Grace, avoid the chaos that derailed the hopes of Martinez, Alysia Montano and others, Conley tried to avoid drama in the 1,500. She started at the back and moved up through the field; when she took the lead she extended her arms as if to warn others not to mess with her. “I got clipped a little bit from behind so I said, ‘Hey, watch it,’” she said. “I guess it worked.”

Molly Huddle, Emily Infeld and Marielle Hall, who finished 1-2-3 in the 10,000 to earn Rio spots, also advanced to the 5,000 final.

Michelle Carter became a three-time Olympian by winning the women’s shotput with her final toss of 19.59 meters (64 feet, 3 ¼ inches). Raven Saunders and Felisha Johnson also will go to Rio.

University of Georgia sophomore Keturah Orji won the women’s triple jump with a leap of 14.32 meters (46-11 3/4). Runner-up Christina Epps (on her fifth jump) and third-place finisher Andrea Geubelle also met the Olympic standard and will be on the U.S. team.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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