The Rio Olympics role model who's actually trying to keep it real

Dan Wetzel
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1160690/" data-ylk="slk:LaShawn Merritt">LaShawn Merritt</a> (Getty)
LaShawn Merritt (Getty)

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Here at the Olympics, you hear it from successful athlete after successful athlete, a clarion call to young people around the world.

It’s generally something about how if you set your mind to it and work hard, anything is possible, including having a gold medal hanging from your neck.

American sprinter LaShawn Merritt knows that advice comes with good intentions. He also knows it isn’t really true, and if there is one thing – other than running fast – he likes to focus on, it’s being real.

Merritt has won two Olympic golds (from the 2008 Beijing Games) and a slew of world championships (over the past decade). He qualified Saturday night for Sunday’s 400-meter final in part, yes, because he set his mind to it and worked hard and all of that.

[Related: Tori Bowie wins silver in women’s 100 behind new Jamaican sprint queen]

But it was also because he was born more athletically gifted than 99.99 percent (maybe even more) of the world. Very few people, no matter how hard they work or dream or believe, can ever outrun him. He’s the favorite for gold tomorrow for a reason – “I train to win so I’ll come out tomorrow to win.”

He isn’t looking to discourage anyone from their Olympic dream. He’s more about playing the odds.

“We need role models who focus kids on what they can do to live good, productive lives,” Merritt said. “Not just be athletes or entertainers, but to own businesses, to be family men, to be responsible.”

This isn’t idle talk from the 30-year-old Merritt. Back in and around his hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, Merritt has taken his earnings from sports and invested it in a series of businesses, none of them flashy or even particularly interesting. His prime motivation is to set himself up when his days as a professional athlete end.

Track stars can make a nice living, but unless you’re Usain Bolt, it isn’t NBA mega-bucks.

“I don’t want to end up broke,” Merritt said. “Track doesn’t last.”

He also wants young people, particularly African-Americans, to see a business owner and realize that, even more than running at the Olympics, is a path for them.

“They have to see that as the route out,” he said.

His prime business is a long haul trucking company. You may not be genetically predisposed to be an Olympian, but owning a long haul trucking company is possible to pretty much anyone who works toward it.

[Related: Mo Farah overcomes fall to win second straight Olympic gold in 10,000 meters]

“It’s a good business. We’re growing,” Merritt said, noting his company is up to owning seven 18-wheelers. He attended East Carolina University for one year before turning pro at age 18. He has since studied business administration at Norfolk (Virginia) State.

In addition to the trucking company, Merritt bought a day care. He also has plans to open a counseling center as a way to run a business and help the community. Expanding the trucking company remains a priority, though.

Sprinters are notorious for their bravado and risk-taking. Merritt has plenty of that, but he isn’t interested in daring investments, say a restaurant or a fashion line.

“I look at what works, what business can be assured success,” Merritt said. “Trucking is a business that if you get established, it’s a good investment.”

A hamstring injury marred Merritt’s London Games. (AP Photo)
A hamstring injury marred Merritt’s London Games. (AP Photo)

That’s the long view from a guy whose races don’t last 45 seconds. Of course, Merritt’s return to an Olympic final is a study in perseverance.

He won two golds in Beijing in the 400 and the 4×400 relay. In 2010, he failed three tests for a banned substance and then blamed it on innocently taking a different kind of performance-enhancing drug, ExtenZe.

To accept the humiliation that comes from that admission suggested to some that it might actually be true — because in the history of doping, pretty much every other explanation/excuse has been trotted out. If nothing else, it was new. (For the record: He says it worked.)

“I don’t see any reason to lie,” Merritt said. “I own up to things.”

Then, at an anti-doping hearing, he even produced the actual employee at his local 7-Eleven that he routinely bought the pills from during a break in competition – when his, shall we say, social life was a bit more active.

That woman, Leslie James, recalled Merritt routinely buying lottery tickets, juice and condoms, but specifically the ExtenZe because they were stored behind the counter to prevent theft. James was deemed “devastatingly convincing” and it was ruled that Merritt accidentally took the banned substances and wasn’t trying to gain a competitive advantage on the track.

He was still suspended 21 months for negligence.

By 2012, Merritt was attempting to redeem himself and return to Olympic glory, but a hamstring injury during preliminary heats doomed him at the London Games. He’s continued to race professionally but is well aware of what the Olympics mean. Eight years later, he wants another gold.

“It feels good [to be back in an Olympic final),” Merritt said here Saturday night. “It’s the same people, the same people I’ve been racing the last few years, just more at stake right now. It’s not my first time around. I feel good. And I want it and I’ll run hard to get it.

“My mind is good,” he continued. “My body is good.”

And so he hopes to win and he hopes people all over see it and see him as what’s possible if you study and work and focus and dream and never let setbacks (big or small or embarrassing) stop you.

He hopes they see him as a role model … not so much as an Olympic track champion but a young businessman in control of his future.

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