Even with top rival missing, sprinter Jeremy Wariner finds push at nationals
By Associated Press
The Washington Post
Friday, June 24, 2011
EUGENE, Ore. — Sprinter Jeremy Wariner doesn’t need his top rival to run fast. A snazzy new Ferrari is incentive enough.
Wariner has promised himself a sports car should he ever break Michael Johnson’s nearly 12-year-old world record in the 400 meters.
But the Ferrari 458 Italia that Wariner has his eye on, the one with a top speed of 202 mph, is a long way from sitting in his garage. He hasn’t gone under the 44-second mark in nearly three years, making Johnson’s time of 43.18 seem all the more distant, just like the sleek car.
And with reigning Olympic and world champion LaShawn Merritt finishing up a 21-month suspension for using a banned substance, there’s really no one to push Wariner, especially when he’s on top of his game.
Wariner enters the 400 at the U.S. championships this weekend as the clear favorite, even though he hardly views it as a one-sided affair.
“There’s people out there that can push me,” said Wariner, who easily won his heat in a pedestrian time of 45.94 seconds during the opening round of the 400 on Thursday night. “Anyone out there right now is a great push.”
Still, the main push has typically come from Merritt. The two have developed quite a robust rivalry, one of the best in track given that no one can catch Jamaica’s Usain Bolt in the 100 and 200.
Wariner was cleaning up the 400 before Merritt rose to power. He snapped Wariner’s nine-race winning streak in 2008, a performance that turned heads simply because nobody had really given Wariner much of a run since he won Olympic gold in 2004.
Merritt dethroned Wariner at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then unseated the two-time world champion in Berlin the next summer.
A few months later, Merritt tested positive for a banned substance used in an over-the-counter male enhancement product, a humiliating episode for one of track and field’s rising stars. His suspension is set to end this July, leaving him eligible to compete at worlds in Daegu, South Korea, in late August.
Whether Merritt will be allowed to race remains uncertain. He has a bye into the field for worlds courtesy of his win in 2009, but USA Track and Field’s policy stipulates that an athlete needs to run in at least one event at nationals to compete in worlds.
The board will meet after the championships to determine Merritt’s roster status. His attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not respond to an email sent by The Associated Press.
Wariner played down the prospect of racing his top rival at worlds.
“If he’s there, he’s there. If he’s not, he’s not,” said Wariner, a former standout at Baylor who still lives in Waco, Texas. “My main focus is on my own race, get ready for my own race. If he’s there, I welcome him. If not, I’m going to have to race whoever steps on the line.
“It’s a great rivalry. When he comes back, the rivalry will come back.”
This has been a roller-coaster season for Wariner. He struggled at the Prefontaine Classic in early June, losing to Angelo Taylor. The following week at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York, Wariner beat Jermaine Gonzales of Jamaica in rainy and cool conditions.
Wariner’s early season inconsistency has some competitors believing Wariner just may be vulnerable, which is fine with him.
“It does give other people hope,” he said. “But my legs are fresh right now. I feel great.”
With one good time, Wariner can erase all doubt, something he’s keenly aware of heading into nationals. He has the seventh-best time in the world this season.
“In my eyes, I have to go out there and really give them a time this weekend, just to show them that I can run a good time whenever I want, as long as I execute properly,” Wariner said.
Maybe even put him back in line for that Ferrari.
Johnson’s world mark is 0.27 seconds faster than Wariner’s top performance in Osaka, Japan, in 2007. Wariner has run 44 seconds or better 10 times, but not since Aug. 29, 2008, in Zurich.
“It’s going to take a lot of patience,” Wariner said of eclipsing Johnson’s mark. “It’s not going to come overnight. I know that. I’ve been saying that since 2006.”
Then again, Johnson didn’t set his mark until late in his career, when he was nearly 32. Wariner turned 27 in January and is just beginning to enter his prime years as he works out under the tutelage of veteran coach Clyde Hart.
“I know I have some time to break it. I can’t force it,” Wariner said. “I’ve just got to stay focused on my race, train hard every day.”