LaShawn Merritt entered the 2016 Olympics with one mission in mind: to recapture Olympic glory after an injury setback in London four years ago forced him to watch from the sidelines in 2012. With his run in the final of the men’s 400 meter race on Sunday night, LaShawn took steps toward that goal.
A 2016 gold in the 400m, to go with his gold in the same event from the 2008 games in Beijing, wasn’t in the offing for LM thanks to a record-breaking run by a rival. But he still ran away with a medal, finishing third with a time of 43.85 seconds to claim a bronze in his third Olympic games.
The Nike sprinter ran a strong race—but there was nothing anyone on the track could do to beat the blazing 43.03-second world-record time put down by South African gold medalist Wayde Van Niekerk, which shattered a 17-year old mark held by Michael Johnson. The track world was stunned by Van Niekerk’s time, but LaShawn also walked way happy to capture his third career Olympic medal.
“It was a great race and I knew it was going to be a fast one,” LaShawn said. “I didn’t think it was going to be 43 seconds fast, but we got our medals.”
The Virginia native set the stage for his medal run with a smooth road to the final. He cruised to the finish line with a time of 45.28 seconds in the preliminary round on Friday, beating the second-place finisher by nearly five-tenths of a second.
Saturday’s semifinals pitted the American against Grenada’s Kirani James, the reigning Olympic champion and one of LaShawn’s most fierce rivals. James edged him at the line in a time of 44.02 seconds to win the heat, but LM came across in second at 44.21 to ease into the final and set up a rematch. After the semifinal finish, LaShawn told the Chicago Tribune that he was holding back his best in preparation for the medal round, as is to be expected in a competition of this magnitude.
“I wanted to run smooth, work on some things and not go all out because the final is [Sunday] and that’s what matters,” the 2008 gold medalist said. “I was top two. I feel good. My body feels good. I will go back and look at some film and execute [Sunday].”
Heading into the final, LaShawn found himself as the only American still in contention, carrying Team USA’s hopes of getting back on the podium in an event once dominated by the U.S.
He lined up for the final in lane No. 5 next to James, who was in lane No. 6. Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, the 2015 IAAF champion in the event, was placed on the outside in lane No. 8. Under the bright lights of Rio, in one of the biggest event finals of the track and field portion of the Olympic Games, it came down to those three men on Sunday night.
At the gun, it appeared LaShawn had the inside track, as he quickly closed in on James ahead of him.
As he pushed past James through the first 200 of the quarter-mile sprint, the 30-year-old Virginia native showed the world he could still contend with the best. But the field never caught van Niekerk, whose Lane 8 placement put him blind ahead of the field, and the South African champion not only ran away with the race, he put for a performance that many thought was impossible. His time of 43.03 seconds run obliterated Johnson’s long-standing record of 43.18 seconds, which was set in 1999.
James again edged LaShawn at the line to claim silver in 43.76 while LM captured the bronze with a time of 43.85 that was just two tenths off his personal best in the event. But the effort of van Niekerk to win gold definitely left an impression. No runner had previously won Olympic gold from lane eight.
“[Van Niekerk] gave the effort today, he wanted it and he got it,” the Virginia native said. “World-record race. I’ll take it. Going home with my first medal, got two more to get.”
LaShawn’s next step in that race for two more medals in Rio begins on Tuesday with the preliminary round of the men’s 200-meter race. The 200m semifinals are set for Wednesday evening, while the final is slated for Thursday night in primetime, 9:30 p.m. ET on NBC. LaShawn will also compete in the 4×400-relay event, in which he holds another gold from the 2008 Olympics. That event begins Friday.