Old favorites lock up London spots

EUGENE, Ore. -- If Saturday was the U.S. Olympic trials' time to highlight the next big thing, then Sunday's men's and women's 400 meters belonged to some of the old favorites.

Though they couldn't match young decathlon star Ashton Eaton's world record on Saturday, Sanya Richards-Ross and LaShawn Merritt won their quarter-miles in surpassing fashion, each finishing with the best time in the world this year. Richards-Ross powered across the finish line in 49.28 seconds, and Merritt cruised home in 44.12, securely pinning "favorite" tags on their chests heading into the London Games next month.

Neither runner is too concerned about that.

"I'm definitely better than I was in 2008," said the 27-year-old Richards-Ross, who was widely expected to win gold in Beijing but settled for bronze. "I've grown up and learned so much in this sport over the last four years, and I'm a different competitor than I was. I'm hitting my marks exactly as I should, and it's just a matter of time before I hit a really great time."

Merritt, who turns 26 on Wednesday, called his race "a great birthday present," but he raced like the cold, calculating veteran that he is, an approach he plans to take to London. "This won't be my first rodeo," he said.

As impressive as their performances were, both runners needed to forge through dark times to make it back to the Olympic team. Richards-Ross has been beset for years by a chronic ailment that affects her skin and joints, originally diagnosed as Behcet's disease. She's been up and down since Beijing and performed poorly last season, which she says was a result of the medication she had been taking. A new doctor in October gave her a different diagnosis (she hasn't revealed what that diagnosis is), new medicine and new lease on her athletic life.

Richards-Ross bubbles with confidence right now, as evidenced by the way she handled Sunday's final when Francena McCorory shot out of the blocks in the first 250 meters. "I just wanted to run until my wheels fell off," McCorory said. "I really wanted to make the team."

It worked for McCorory, who finished third, but it was the kind of tactic that can wreck a rival's race plan. "Francena kind of blew away all the proportions," said Dee Dee Trotter, who finished second.

Richards-Ross was unfazed, sticking to her plan and reeling in McCorory as she routed the rest of the field down the homestretch.

"I knew if I stayed in my race, I'd be able to run in the 49 range," she said. "I feel like I have the best coach in the world [Clyde Hart], and if I'd just stick with his plan, I'd be able to run really well today."

She also has some good home support in the form of her husband, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Aaron Ross, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. "My honey's here," Richards-Ross said, pointing to her husband at the news conference, and both sides of the sprinter's hyphenated name were happy Sunday.

The football player is afraid to race his wife, but wasn't afraid to give her some advice. "I tell her all the time: 'I see you train, I see the times you put up,'" he said. "'Just execute and you'll be just fine.'"

She was, as was Merritt. His 2012 Olympic cycle was nearly derailed by an IAAF suspension after ingesting an over-the-counter sexual potency supplement that contained a banned substance. He maintained he made an innocent mistake and did not cheat; an arbitration panel agreed with him, overturning official decisions that would have disallowed him from competing at the trials and in London.

After coming back to the track last year following a 21-month layoff, Merritt ran the fastest time in the world in 2011, but lost the world championship final last August to Kirani James of Grenada, sowing some doubts about his ability to rebound.

The 400, after all, has been a young man's event in Olympic years. Jeremy Wariner, who came off his college season at Baylor to win gold in 2004, placed fifth Sunday and failed to make the team. Two upstart collegians, Florida's Tony McQuay (44.49) and USC's Bryshon Nellum (44.80), punched their tickets to London instead.

Nellum will be one of the more intriguing stories of the Games. An outstanding California track prospect in high school, his career almost ended when L.A. gang members shot him in the legs as he left a party on Halloween in 2008. A series of operations to remove the shotgun pellets and years of intense, patient training brought Nellum all the way back, and then some. "All I did was take it day by day, stayed humble and stayed dedicated," he said.

But the inspired youngsters were no match for Merritt, who still possesses the best sprint speed among the world's quarter-milers. He used that speed to gain an early lead, glided through the middle part of the race and surged in the final 100. His time could have been even better, as he let up in the final few strides.

He looks ready to break 44 seconds in the 400 again, even in what could be similar cool, rainy conditions in London. Based on the rounds in Eugene, Merritt said, "I think the whole U.S. team has a psychological advantage with running through this. This was not a perfect race, but if it takes 43 in London, I'm willing to go there."

Spoken like an old hand. With fresh legs.