LONDON -- Sprint hurdlers are like miniature figurine enthusiasts: obsessing over the minutia is part of the gig. So it's no surprise that Aries Merritt found something wrong with his semifinal run of the 110-meter hurdles, which he did in 12.94 seconds, the fastest non-final ever. "There were little technical errors," Merritt said as he walked beneath Olympic stadium. "A collision with someone." The "collision" appeared to be little more than a brushing of arms between men who drifted to the side of their lanes. But when you paint figurines or run the high hurdles, you sweat the small stuff. And sweating the small stuff paid off in gold for Merritt on Wednesday night, when he ran 12.92 in the final for gold -- the first for U.S. men on the track -- ahead of American Jason Richardson (13.04). "I worked really hard for this moment, Merritt said, and yet it was another race he described as imperfect.
OK, then, what about the world-leading 12.93 he ran in Monaco last month? "I made a mistake over the second hurdle," he says. "I was way too far in the air. Vicious mistake." Collision. Vicious mistake. Keep in mind it's a vicious mistake that probably no more than a few dozen human beings on Earth could have picked out with their naked eyes. The domain of the hurdler is trafficking in overstatement.
What about when you won Olympic trials, also in 12.93? "I got too excited and I was running up on the hurdles," he says. "I had to back off or I would have hit a hurdle." Merritt ran six sub-13 races this year. Richardson had two, China's Liu Xiang had one, and nobody else had any. And yet ... the 12.93 in London last month? Come on, it looked perfect, and in bad weather too. "I didn't get a great start."
Picky, picky. Despite his self-proclaimed failings, after six years of apparent stagnation in the low 13 seconds, Merritt became a guy who runs 12.93 -- which he did three times -- even when he makes (so he says) mistakes. Merritt has excellent flat speed -- he says he can run 10.1 seconds for a flat 100 in practice -- and this year he learned to harness it. "It's not about who's the fastest," Merritt says. "Liu Xiang [who crashed out in the first round] probably has the slowest [flat] 100 out of all of us, and he runs 12.8 in the hurdles. You really only get up to top speed from the start to the first hurdle and from the last hurdle to the finish."
Controlling speed, so that it is an asset rather than a burden, is what the hurdles are all about. Watch a sprint-hurdler closely as he goes over the 42-inch barriers, and you will see he most certainly is not sprinting. Flat 100-meter runners explode off the ground and fire their knees and hands high into the air. Hurdlers' feet stay low to the ground. To borrow a phrase from the annoyingly catchy song "Party Rock Anthem," everyday hurdlers are shufflin'. Their run is more of a rhythmic scooting across the track that they call a shuffle. If they sprinted like 100-meter runners, they would crash into the barriers that are just about nine meters apart from one another. Renaldo Nehemiah, the former 110-meter hurdles world record holder (and 49ers wide receiver), used to harness his speed by running diagonally between the hurdles. "Post-to-post," he called it, in reference to alternating the sides of the hurdle he aimed at. "I had way too much speed for the 10 yards [between hurdles]," Nehemiah says. "And it was very difficult back then to take advantage of my speed without coming up on the hurdle."
Some things were different back then, though. Nehemiah ran on slower, Tartan track surfaces, compared to the Mondo of today, and the aluminum hurdles of his era didn't knock over as do the Weeble-like hurdles of today. "In my day, we feared the hurdles," he says. "If you hit them, they tore skin off." With slower surfaces and solid hurdles, the athletes ran more like sprinters in the late 1970s and early '80s, when Nehemiah dominated. Still, Merritt had to learn how to control his speed even shuffling. So he took a page from Nehemiah's notebook: he put the hurdles closer together in practice. "In practice, we jam the hurdles in and run with reduced spacing," Merritt says. "So me mimicking those fast rhythms in practice allow me to have those fast rhythms in the race." Says Nehemiah, "I remember talking to [Merritt] and telling him, You have to feel the rhythm. It appears he found that rhythm."
It was finding his rhythm, it was switching from eight to seven steps before the first hurdle, it was controlling his speed, it was returning to his college coach Vince Anderson, and it was putting together sustained training in a season that didn't include words like "pulled," or "twisted" in reference to his body parts. It was the complete blinder-style focus on his own hurdles. Dayron Robles, the world record holder from Cuba, pulled up in the final Wednesday after the sixth hurdle, but both Merritt and Richardson, who were to his sides, didn't miss a beat. "I heard Dayron yell," Merritt says, "And I was like, Oh my God, what's that noise? He's coming for me! I was running for my life." But he wasn't coming, and Robles hadn't been gaining on him anyway.
And so Merritt gilded a hurdling career that started when he was kid -- he also did gymnastics -- when he was identified by a high school coach in 9th grade after a track teammate dared him to jump over "like a 45-inch fence," Merritt says. "The coach happened to see me, and he said, 'Wow, you're going to become a hurdler.'... So I started hurdling. I was garbage slow at first."
But his progression was stunning. He was shedding time after just three weeks of training, and won the Georgia state title as a senior. In his freshman year at Tennessee, the 6-foot-1 Merritt dropped more than a quarter second even though the hurdles increased from 39 inches in high school to 42 in college. He went pro after his junior year in 2006, but seemed to plateau as he struggled with injuries. In early 2012, though, he had a breakthrough when he got out of the blocks hard and beat Liu Xiang -- the 2004 Olympic champion -- to the world indoor title this year in the 60-meter hurdles. Merritt put "pressure" on Liu, he says, meaning he got a blistering start and forced Liu to rush over the hurdles. "I applied pressure to him early," Merritt says, "And he made two mistakes." On Wednesday, Merritt was out first again, and led from line to line, with no one gaining ground. Getting out fast, Merritt says, leads other hurdlers to make mistakes, which is why switching to seven steps to the first hurdle was such an important change this season. Hurdlers, after all, have a lot in common with curve ball pitchers, it's the little mistakes that get 'em every time.
Rudyard Kipling wrote of the distance runners that if one can "keep your head when all about you are losing theirs ...Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it." Merritt kept his head, even when the world record holder and reigning Olympic champ yelled out beside him. He won his ninth straight race, and today the hurdling world is his. And yet ...
"I don't think the race was perfect," he said afterward. "That's the hurdles, you don't always have the perfect race." Good enough for gold, anyway.