Athletics: Healthy Merritt sizzles in London
LONDON (Reuters) - In two days at the London Olympics, Aries Merritt has had two stark reminders of the high attrition rate of the high hurdles and it has made him all the more determined to enjoy his gold medal.
The American watched on Tuesday as 2004 Olympic champion Liu Xiang ruptured his Achilles in the first-round heats and then heard the yell behind him as 2008 champion Dayron Robles tore his hamstring in Wednesday's final.
The 27-year-old was already ahead of Robles when the Cuban was injured and continued his smooth charge over the remaining four hurdles to win gold in a lifetime best 12.92 seconds.
"Everyone has their time," Merritt told reporters. "Everyone has their moment when they're just sizzling, they're on fire. This time it was me.
"I really want to make the most of it," he added. "Who knows if I'll get this chance again? It's a once in a lifetime moment. I'm the champion. It really hasn't still hasn't sunk in yet.
"I proved myself finally on the biggest stage of my life."
Merritt has been in sizzling form this season, winning the world indoor title in Istanbul and starting a sequence of three runs of 12.93 seconds in three races to win the U.S. trials at the end of June.
The secret to his great improvement this year was simple, Merritt said.
"Health. This is the first season I haven't had anything strange, no injury, nothing torn," he said.
"As a result of that I'm able to train more consistently and get more training in, whereas in previous years I would have to take a month off to recover.
"When you are taking that time off your competitors are training. That's been the key for my season."
Merritt was particularly delighted to bring the title back to the United States for the first time since Allen Johnson won it in Atlanta in 1996.
Merritt took up hurdling at the end of his first year at high school in Georgia when fellow athlete Reggie Witherspoon, who would later win a relay gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, dared Merritt to jump over a fence.
"I just ran up to the fence and I just ghetto-leaped it," Merritt recalled. "My coach saw me and said 'you're going to be the hurdler now'."
Merritt was world junior champion in 2004 but his star faded as other Americans like David Oliver and Richardson shone.
"He's always been there but he struggled with injury and motivation," former world record holder Colin Jackson told Reuters on Wednesday.
"What he's done is put together a whole season without injury. Nothing has changed, he still has the same technique and the same speed, he's just a bit more mature and managed to add consistency."
Although hurdlers accept injury problems as part and parcel of the sport, Merritt was saddened to see the Olympics of Robles and Liu end the way they did.
"To see them going down was just terrible," he said. "You want to race against them when they are at their best ... but that's hurdling. Your toughest opponent is the 10 barriers.
"Liu is a phenomenal athlete, he didn't get a chance to compete here, it's a tragedy."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)