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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, July 4, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

A little extra to root for in Beijing Olympics

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

In honor of America’s 232nd birthday today, I feel inspired to review the highlights of my long-held Olympics obsession.

From watching Mary Lou Retton win in my grandmother’s Tennessee apartment in 1984, to attending several events live in Atlanta in 1996, to scattered memories from the Games of my earliest childhood, I have always been absolutely devoted to devouring every morsel of the Olympics.

I have already repeated “8-8-08” to my kids more times than I can count, in response to their “When do the Olympics start?” It seems I’m raising mini-Olympic junkies.

One of the great things about watching Olympic events is that a fan automatically becomes a patriot. When you pull for the home team, you’re pulling for your country, and it’s a little like an enormous arena with fans cheering just as passionately for Malaysia, Costa Rica, Luxembourg , Korea.

American pride is certainly reason enough to tune in, but if Pirates fans want another compelling reason they can review the East Carolina association, albeit brief, of LaShawn Merritt, who defeated perennial favorite Jeremy Wariner in the U.S. Olympic Trials on Thursday night.

In what was called the biggest upset of the U.S. Track and Field Trials, Merritt defeated Wariner by .20 seconds with a time of 44 seconds flat and the front chair heading to Beijing.

It was the second time Merritt had felled Wariner in just over a month, beating him first on June 1 in Berlin. Prior to that race, Wariner had been ranked No. 1 in the world for four straight years.

Merritt became a Pirate in 2004, when he enrolled at ECU because of its proximity to his Portsmouth, VA, home and his good relationship with then-head track coach Bill Carson, who had coached Merritt at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy.

With three gold medals at that Italy meet before he ever attended his first ECU class, Merritt had the talent to be one of the most highly decorated ECU athletes in years.

In his first competitive turn for the Pirates, the NCAA indoor season, Merritt proved that he needed no warm-up time to dominate the collegiate stage. At an indoor meet in Fayetteville, AR, on Feb. 11, 2005, Merritt ran a 44.93 in the 400 meters to set a new indoor collegiate and world junior record. It was also the third fastest indoor 400-meter time in world history.

The next day at that meet, he won the 200 meters and set another world junior record.

Merritt swept the 200 and 400 meters at the Conference USA Championships in late February of 2005, but before he could compete in the NCAA Indoor Championships, he announced at a March 3 press conference that he would forego his remaining collegiate eligibility to sign a professional contract with Nike.

At the time of the announcement, Merritt indicated that he would continue to use the Pirates’ facilities for training and that he would assist Carson as a volunteer coach. But those continued ECU associations never came to pass, as Merritt went on to train with his old coach Dwayne Miller back in Virginia.

His accolades since hanging up his purple uniform include a silver medal in Osaka at the 2007 World Championships (his first sub-44 second performance ever, with a 43.96), a gold in the 4X400 relay at that same Osaka meet, a gold medal in both the 400 open and the 4X400 relay at the 2006 World Cup in Athens, Greece, and a gold in the 4X400 relay at the 2006 World Indoor Championships in Moscow.

Pirate fans, of course, wish that Merritt had stayed around Greenville longer than a truncated indoor season, so they could have watched firsthand as he turned into the impressive athlete who is now on top of the track and field world headed to Beijing.

But Merritt’s decision three years ago was clearly not a career setback, and in his sport many young athletes opt for professional perks rather than collegiate competition.

So it’s up to each of you as to whether you let bygones be bygones. The fact is, LaShawn Merritt was a Pirate once, and he never enrolled in another college. So I’m sure he would accept the enthusiasm of both the American Nation and the Pirate Nation with open arms.

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07/04/2008 03:18:35 AM

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