Aries Merritt, photo by PhotoRun.net
For 110-meter hurdlers Jason Richardson and Aries Merritt, the past year has been life-changing: Richardson became the 2011 IAAF World Champion outdoors, and this winter Merritt won the 2012 world title indoors. But the year ahead could be even more monumental. "I can't sleep at night sometimes," said Richardson, on the excitement and pressure of the upcoming Olympic campaign for gold in one of the most fiercely competitive events in the sport. Richardson and Merritt, both of whom are suddenly among the medal favorites, will face each other--along with 2008 Olympic bronze medalist David Oliver--at the adidas Grand Prix in New York City on June 9, and they spoke to reporters today on a teleconference in advance of the meet.
Link to audio of
the teleconference: http://www.diamondleague-
Link to today's
athlete announcement: http://www.diamondleague-
On what might be different in their approach in the Olympic year as opposed to past seasons:
Jason Richardson: My training is going incredibly well. I hit a lot of benchmarks for myself earlier than I did last year so I'm on pace to run better and faster than the previous years. As far as my approach to the Olympic year, definitely don't want to re-invent the wheel. It's just improving and making small changes in a positive direction towards improving on things that I can change to help my race. We've really worked on speed. We've worked on improving technique, and we worked on the competitive edge, which I feel is a strength that I have. Overall, I'm in a good place, and I'm excited for the year.
Aries Merritt: Training is going really good. The only major difference I've made this year was my change from eight to seven steps. Other than that everything is going well. I'm looking forward to running in New York. I think it will be a good result there.
On their feelings about the Olympics:
Richardson: For me the Olympics is our biggest stage. It's our Super Bowl. It's our Grammy's. It's our Academy Awards. It's our biggest opportunity to show what we can do. For me, it's a big issue. It's a big goal. It's something that I always watched on TV when I was little and something that I've aspired to be a part of and become. I can't sleep at night sometimes. Sometimes I break out in a light sweat just thinking about the pressure of what it means. So it's a big deal. And because it's such a big deal I know that the competition is going to be at a heighted level, a level that I've never been able to compete with but have an opportunity to in the future.
I can see a world record happening. I can see some crazy times happening. I can see a lot of history being made at the Olympics because that Olympic spirit is contagious and it's pervasive and it's something that we only get every four years.
On the hurdles as a showcase event, similar to the 100 meters:
Richardson: It provides a little bit of pressure. But at this level you have to become familiar and friends with pressure. I do feel the pressure of being in a marquee event in the Olympics but pressure makes diamonds and pressure busts pipes. So I can say that I definitely want to shine in the Olympics and that pressure will help. It's an amazing feeling that our event itself in the canon of track and field has been elevated to a marquee event.
On if the Olympic Trials harder than the Olympics:
Merritt: I do think the Trials are harder than the Olympics because there are 9 Americans that can run extremely well. Jason, David (Oliver), myself, Dexter (Faulk), former medalists as well, Terrance Trammell, David Payne. Any American can make the team so it's just going to be ridiculous.
On what they are doing day-to-day in training to improve:
Merritt: I've been working with Ralph Band, he's a USATF guy that comes and he does biomechanics with the Americans, and he's been identifying my weaker points. So I've been working on those areas of training, one of which is technique because I'm already fast, and hurdle clearance. That's been one of my major issues, clearing the hurdle just a little bit faster. Once I get that down I think my overall time in the event will drop.
Richardson: For myself, it's always been technique. I have an interesting story about technique. I kind of have the same technique that I've had in high school and middle school and we've made alterations, small, here and there as the years have gone on. So I'm definitely trying to work on being that textbook technician as a hurdler. But we always work on, which is kind of the thing that a lot of athletes don't work on and that's that eye of the tiger, that competitiveness, that raw ability to get out there at all times to compete. The training that John Smith affords us really pushes us to the limit of what it takes to be an athlete.
There are times where we're at the starting line at practice that we're exhausted and we're tired and we don't think that we can make it through the set, and it's practices like that that when you get to a World Championship final or an Olympic final you don't freak out because you've actually had that same type of fatigue and mentality at practice. So I'm working on the mental side of track and field as well as the physical.
On they're looking for in running in New York at the adidas Grand Prix:
Merritt: For me I just want to run a seasonal best. I believe it's two weeks out from USAs so to run a PR or a seasonal best before then is always good for your confidence going into our championships.
Richardson: Call me crazy, which I've been called crazy for awhile, I'm trying to break a world record. I have a joke with my agent that every time, every event, no matter what level it is, I'm out there trying to break the world record. I say this just to say that when I step on the line, I'm trying to do my best. I'm trying to get out there and put on a show and just display my talents. I know that with so many good quality people in the field that nothing's impossible.
On switching from 8 steps to 7 steps:
Merritt: I made the change because a lot of my top competitors were taking seven steps and it's one less step. Knowing the hurdles, everyone takes the same amount of steps so if you're taking seven then that means you're taking one less over the course of the race.
It really allows you to generate more momentum as you're going into the first unit if you actually do seven steps properly. I've actually been able to mimic my eight-step pattern with seven steps, with one less step. So I'm going through the first hurdle faster than I've ever gone and generating more momentum than I ever done before. That's the reason for the change.
Dayron Robles paved the way for seven steps for male hurdlers when he broke the world record. It was just phenomenal when he did it and everyone was like, 'Oh my God, this dude is taking seven steps and we're taking eight.'
Richardson: Switched to seven last year. It was definitely a roller-coaster. Sometimes I would get it and sometimes I wouldn't but it definitely as made me a better athlete. Now this year the seven steps have become a lot more comfortable. I really have endorsed the cadence and I really think it has helped the latter part of my race, putting me in a better position at the end.
On who they train with day-in and day-out--a hurdles-specific group or with flat sprinters:
Merritt: I train with a sprints coach who is primarily good at coaching the hurdles. He coaches the women's sprints and hurdles at Texas A&M--Vince Anderson. He was my coach my freshman year of college, and then he left and came to A&M. I sought after him after I graduated.
We primarily work on sprinting, and we hurdle twice a week. If we need more hurdling then we'll hurdle a third time a week, but it's not necessary.
Richardson: As everyone in track & field knows in general, there's a man named John Smith, and I train with him. I have the amazing opportunity of having a training partner who just came from Saudi Arabia. He's really helped me at the beginning of the race because he's a really quick starter. He's the only hurdler in the group. He's been here for a couple of weeks now so for the most part I've been the singular focus. Now I have the opportunity to get feedback in my race in relation to another athlete, so that's been good.
On off days that I don't do hurdles, I am actually doing sprinting workouts with some of the top sprinters in the world. I have the chance to run against and with Walter Dix and Richard Thompson, and I have the chance to feed off the energy Carmelita Jeter affords to practice. The culture we have in the camp is amazing and is what pushes us to do kind of what the impossible calls for. I definitely think that training environment works really well in LA.
I train twice a week (on hurdles) but the sensibility of our program is, if I'm a little bit sore or I need more work, I can always add or detract from a hurdle workout. For myself, speed is a major component so we always make sure we keep the flying 60s, we keep the general fitness, and that we cover the training with hurdles.
On how each got started hurdling:
Merritt: When I was in high school, the end of my freshman year, the season had already began. One of my teammates, Reggie Witherspoon who was on the 2008 Olympic team, he dared me to jump a fence, randomly. He was like, 'I bet you won't jump that fence.' And I was like, 'Alright I'm gonna do it.' And so I ran up and jumped the fence. I had no technique, anything like that; I just jumped it. My high school coach at the time, Chad Walker, he saw me jumping and said, 'You're going to be our hurdler from now on.' And so then I pretty much taught myself how to hurdle. I knew the gist of hurdling--it was three steps in between and eight steps to the first hurdle--I got that down. I opened up at like 17 seconds. It was terrible. But as the year progressed, I dropped time and ended up running like 14 by the end of the year. I took to it immediately once I learned the rhythm of the hurdles.
Before I jumped the fence, I ran the 100, the 200 and the 400. I wasn't that fast. But as a hurdler, as long as you have rhythm, you can run the hurdles fast.
Richardson: I've always done the hurdles. I began the hurdles in middle school as an initial way to pay for school. My sisters are eight and six years older than me, and my dad made a little funny comment about paying for school and he wished they were athletes. We joked about it, and that kind of stuck with me. For me, I just kind of mimicked what I saw on TV. That's why I have a raw technique, and it's not too perfect but it works. I just enjoyed it. I've had coaches who've spent some tears and some energy and some yelling trying to get me to make corrections, but I did come with a certain skill set that was natural. We're just working on making changes to make me better.
On if winning world championships/world indoor championships has changed anything in their lives:
Merritt: Winning always changes your life. If you don't win, you don't get the publicity you would've gotten if you had won. So it's always life changing. You get more exposure, and more people want to talk to you after you've won. Winning always has that effect. For me, winning has given me more confidence going into this outdoor season because I defeated Liu Xiang, and he's no slouch of a hurdler. He's an amazing hurdler. It's give me more confidence knowing I defeated him on the World scene.
Richardson: Winning the World Championships has definitely affected my bank account. Outside of that, Worlds gives you an indication of where you're at in relation to the other competitors and how much your hard work is actually paying off. It creates a pressure of having to do media obligations and exposure. I had to do the TODAY Show, which was an amazing experience but I just didn't want hit a hurdle and fall on national television. It's theses moments that a World Championship title can bring that actually create an amazing chance to enjoy the sport outside of just going to practice and competing. You get to reach fans, you get to interact with people, you get to really extend the boundaries of what track & field can do.
On why hurdlers face each other more than most sprinters:
Merritt: We want the best results. If you don't race the best people, you don't get the best results. To race the Olympic champion every time you step on the track, to race the American record holder every time you step on the track, it's things like that that push you to be just a little bit better.
Richardson: We have 17 competitors at every meet. You have the 7 people at adjacent lanes, then you have the 10 people you're actually trying to jump over that want to keep you from finishing that race. Different than actually sprinting, you know that you have to run your race and get over your hurdles and get over your obstacles. There's a certain focus that hurdling has that sprinting doesn't have. You can't say a word about who's in the race because you still have to do what you need to do to get over those hurdles and stay on your feet. I think that's why hurdlers aren't afraid to compete against each other and aren't afraid to race because in essence, we already have our own battles inside our two white lines.
On what it means to compete in an Olympic year:
Merritt: The Olympics is the biggest stage for track & field. No one in the United States at least watches the World Championships. Everyone watches the Olympics. To be an Olympian period is just amazing in and of itself because so many people are so good, and so many people can make the team.
Richardson: For myself I don't have anything to prove except to prove to myself. I definitely feel like momentum is important in track & field. You're kind of always as good as your last race. Coming off of Worlds, I have the momentum of the outdoor season, and I definitely want to keep that going, keep that rolling, keep that same mentality going throughout the season. The mental part of track as a whole is actually forgotten about. It's an element that a lot of people don't really address. I think that these championships, and the momentum and using that leverage when you compete is what's important. That's what I'm trying to do this year, is making sure, not necessarily that the title I have is respected but just reminding people when it's all said and done, I was able to run well and run some great times. That's what's important going into this year.
I think what y'all will see is an Olympic final probably two, three, maybe four times before the actual Olympics. It's gonna be a good year for hurdling. Before the adidas Grand Prix, we'll definitely compete against each other a few times.