Well into the women's mile at the Garden, Jan Merrill was running last in a field of eight. Ordinarily this would have been surprising, since Merrill ranks just behind Francie Larrieu as the best woman miler in the U.S., but barely 30 minutes earlier she had brought the crowd to its feet by lapping all but two of the nine runners in the field to win the two-mile in 9:59.6. If she was tired, it was understandable.
Then with two quick bursts the 19-year-old Merrill moved to fourth, and then to second, so that at the gun lap she was only a stride behind Julie Brown, the AAU outdoor 1,500-meter champion. On the straightaway Merrill tried to pass, but Brown held her off. Now, coming into the final straight, Merrill moved again. As Brown neared the tape she raised her arms to signal victory, but even as she did, Merrill flashed by to win in 4:38.5. Another standing ovation.
Merrill's gutty double, added to her victory over Larrieu in the Millrose Games, makes it clear that come July she almost surely will be running in the Olympics. Three women will represent the U.S. in the 1,500, providing each meets the Olympic standard of 4:15. Four other Americans have run the distance under 4:14, but the only one better than Merrill, Larrieu, lowered her U.S. record last July to 4:08.5, seven seconds off the Olympic and world record (4:01.4) held by Ludmilla Bragina of the Soviet Union.
Merrill is fresher to world-class competition than her event is to the Olympics. When the 1,500 was inaugurated in Munich, she was returning home from Pine Knoll Swim School in Springfield, Mass. to start her junior year at Waterford (Conn.) High School. Since 1964, when she was eight, Merrill has swum for the local YMCA in state and regional AAU meets. By 1972 she was the regional champion, with a personal best of 1:24.4 in the 110-yard breaststroke.
"Everyone in my family swims," says Merrill. "In those days my concentration was in the pool, not on the track, because in Connecticut the competition is much tougher in swimming." Jan's 14-year-old brother Joby is the current family star, having recently broken St. Bernard High School records in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle.
Each fall at Waterford High, Jan starred on the field-hockey team, earning All-Conference honors all four years. In spring she would switch to track, and by her junior and senior years she had won the state half-mile and mile championship. When she graduated in 1974, she dropped all other competitive sports to concentrate on running.
Standing on the Coast Guard Academy cross-country course in New London, Merrill listens for afternoon workout instructions from her coach, Norm Higgins, who was the 1966 national marathon champion. Without a moment's hesitation she darts off, her orange sweat suit disappearing quickly into a nearby forest. Her training schedule has been a daily routine for 18 months. "I am enjoying running now more than ever," she says. "For me it is like eating a meal, a natural part of my day." As Jan talks, her mother eavesdrops: "I never get a chance to hear this from Jan," she says. Indeed the press has come to regard the elusive Merrill as a tough person to interview.
Merrill is up by 6:30 for a daily 2½-mile run. After a commute of 14 miles in her blue Volkswagen to Thames Valley State Technical College where she is a sophomore, she returns from her morning classes to her home overlooking the Connecticut shoreline to relax. Homework keeps her busy until about five, when she takes a six-mile cross-country run. Only in the most extreme winter weather does she move inside the Coast Guard gym, preferring the cold, fresh air of the woods. "Once your hands warm up [she wears socks on them to hasten the process] the air feels good and is terrific for your heart," she says. She admires the Russian runners because "they learned to run and to train in the cold."
Merrill got her first national exposure in the heat and humidity of a June afternoon in Florida. She chose to run the 1,500 in the 1974 Junior Nationals at Gainesville instead of staying in Waterford for her high school graduation. She finished second in 4:36, thereby qualifying for the U.S. junior team, which was to compete against the Russians in Austin two weeks later. There she placed third in 4:28.1, only a few seconds behind two Russians. Higgins credits that accomplishment to her "instinctual ability to accept and meet a challenge." But her more recent success can be credited to her training last August in the Sports Institute of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, West Germany, just before the Pan-American Trials, where she ran a 4:10.6, the 13th-best 1,500 last year by a woman.
"I never really had to teach her how to run a race," Higgins says. "She knew instinctively from swimming. Last summer in Mainz she learned how to relax and now she is able to run for her own performance, not being directly concerned with her competition. I compare it to her being in a play. Like an actress, she has certain lines to deliver, a part to play, which blends into the drama as a whole. She is not the star, but simply one of the performers. If she does the very best she can, then her performance will be judged as a success by the crowd and by herself."
As it was in Madison Square Garden last week. When she was asked after the meet if she was tired, she said, "Not at all. What did I run tonight, three miles? Well, I missed a cross-country meet to run here, and that's three miles, too, so what's the difference? I was relaxed. I enjoyed myself out there. I get pleasure out of it. The crowd, all that cheering—everything. I'm looking forward to the Olympics, but I don't think of them as an end. I may keep running forever."