Aries Merritt leads the field to win gold in the men's 110m hurdles on at the London 2012 Olympic Games on August 8, 2012.
For the final race of his dream season, Olympic champion Aries Merritt pulled out all the stops.
“Normally when I run really fast, I have to back off in order to not die because the hurdles are coming up so fast,” he said.
But with no more races after the Samsung Diamond League meet Friday in Brussels, Merritt decided to test his limits.
“I just said, ‘Forget it, I’m just going to keep running,’ ” Merritt said. “Whatever happens, happens … So I didn’t back off this time. I just kept going.”
He kept going right into the record book.
Merritt clocked 12.80 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles, smashing the world record of 12.87 set by Dayron Robles of Cuba in 2008. He also shattered David Oliver’s American record of 12.89 set in 2010. Merritt’s personal best going into the race was 12.92, which he ran at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Leading up to this race, Merritt had posted the six top times of the season and had come within 0.05 seconds of Robles' mark.
“I’m still pretty much in shock at the time,” said Merritt, who turned 27 during the Olympic Games.
He even overshadowed Usain Bolt of Jamaica, whose time in the 100 meters in Brussels, 9.86 seconds, was relatively pedestrian for him.
Merritt said his race was close to perfect, although three hours afterward he still hadn’t seen a replay and couldn’t really remember it.
But Merritt’s body was still telling him how fast he ran. “I feel like my hamstrings are about to explode; my calves are cramping up; I’m experiencing a lot of pain,” he said. “I just took my body to a place it’s never been before. Ever.”
Merritt did know that he didn’t hit any hurdles, didn’t float over any and got a good start. “I think there’s always room for improvement, though,” he said.
But not any time soon. Usually after a race he doesn’t tighten up and feels like he can run the next day, but Merritt said, “I don’t feel like I can come back tomorrow.”
Teammate Jason Richardson was second in 13.05 seconds, followed by Hansle Parchment of Jamaica in 13.14, repeating their Olympic finish.
The .07 drop in the world record was the biggest in the 110 hurdles since Renaldo Nehemiah lowered it by a whopping .28, becoming the first man to finish under 13 seconds in 1981 with a time of 12.93.
Merritt said Nehemiah was the hurdling model for him when he was coming up because “he was just a monster of a hurdler,” and he also tried to emulate Allen Johnson, whose 1996 gold medal in the event was the last Olympic medal by a U.S. hurdler until Merritt’s.
He also studied the race in which Liu Xiang of China won the Olympic gold medal in 2004 because there was “something magical about it.” “I watched that race, no lie, about 600 times, just to see how fluid he was over the hurdles,” Merritt said.
Now his race is one to be analyzed. It capped a dream season for Merritt – “a dream season for anyone,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever done what I’ve done this year.”
Merritt, who also won the world indoor 60-meter hurdles title, has the top seven times in the world this year and ran under 13 seconds eight times. He needs three more sub-13 races to equal Johnson, who has the record for the most races that start with a 12.
Colin Jackson, the former 110-meter hurdles record holder, told the BBC, "I knew from the way he got out of the blocks that he might break it. From hurdle two he was pulling away from a class field and he made it look so effortless. It is rare that anyone wins the Olympics and then goes on to break the world record in the same season. When you know what it takes in that event, it was great to see. It was sensational, just sheer magic and perfection."
Merritt, a native of Marietta, Ga., said this was the year everything clicked for him. Before this season, his personal best was 13.09 set in 2007.
“I think it’s maturity,” said Merritt, who lives in College Station, Texas. “On top of that, I changed a lot of my training this year.”
He switched from eight steps to the first hurdle to seven, which he compared to “trying to write in cursive with your left hand if you’re right handed.”
Merritt also changed his diet, becoming more lean and fit, which enabled him to recover faster. Most importantly, Merritt spent the season injury-free for the first time in his career.
Merritt has had tears in both his left and my right hamstrings, and he’s also torn his quad and ligaments in his ankle. He’s had a stress fracture in his foot and blown out his knee, prompting people to tell him to throw in the towel and get a “real” job.
But ever since winning the world junior title in 2004, Merritt knew he had the potential to make it as a professional hurdler.
“You just don’t wake up one morning and you’re good,” he said. “You have to train really hard, you have to mature in all aspects of life, and I think I did that this season.”
He said his event is so technical that athletes usually get faster with age.
“You have to learn the proper technique, and that’s why you see older hurdlers run fast later in their career because they figure it out,” he said. “I think this year is one of those years where I just figured everything out.”
One thing he knows for sure: World records are fleeting, but that gold medal will stay with him forever.
“Not many people can say they’ve been Olympic champion. Ever,” Merritt said. “World records, they come and go all the time. I can have the world record now, but someone next year can break the world record and it will be gone, but no one can take my Olympic championship away from me.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.