SPORTS

Merritt falling in step with hurdles, ready to contend with likes of Robles, Liu in London

07/23/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/22/2012 05:12 EDT
BIRMINGHAM, England - Hurdler Aries Merritt has stepped up his performance simply by taking out a step.

He once utilized an eight-step approach to the first hurdle, causing him to tap the brakes to get over it. By cutting out one small shuffle, Merritt is keeping his initial momentum out of the starting blocks.

And with it, gathering a wave of momentum entering the London Games where he may just be the favourite. That's saying something in a 110-meter hurdles field that includes reigning champion and record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba, 2004 Olympic gold medallist Liu Xiang of China and world champion Jason Richardson.

Merritt turned in a world-leading time of 12.93 seconds at U.S. trials last month. He then followed it up by running the same time at a meet in London and another in Monaco.

Despite having the three top times this season, he doesn't consider himself the favourite.

As for pressure, Merritt insists he has none at all.

"I don't have anything to prove," said Merritt, who turns 27 on Tuesday. "I'm not a reigning Olympic champion or a former Olympic champion. I don't have a record or a former world record.

"But if I do what I've been doing all season, something special will happen."

Back in December, Merritt made the decision to eliminate a step, a risky move so close to London. But within a few months, he had his timing down.

Now, he takes a total of 51 steps to complete the hurdles.

To him, that's an ideal number.

"It was something that had to be done if I was going to compete with Liu and Dayron," Merritt said. "I had to make a change. It's worked out for the best."

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CATCHING UP ON THEIR READING: To pass the time at training camp in Birmingham, the U.S. track team has organized a book club. Runners Lauryn Williams and Alysia Montano came up with the idea over lunch and are serving as co-chairs of the group. The novel they have selected is "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss.

Soon, they'll conduct their first meeting to discuss the book.

"But we're already getting good reviews about the book," said Williams, who's on page 64. "We even have boys in the club, so with a name like 'The History of Love,' you know it has to be good."

Still undecided is the name for their new club. So far, the ideas suggested include "The Book Club Bookies" or "The Paperback Club."

"We're still working on it," Williams said.

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RELAY INPUT: Why break up a good foursome?

That's Trell Kimmons' take at least. After Kimmons, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Ryan Bailey blazed around the track in 37.61 seconds to win the 400 relay at Monaco last week, he believes that should be the team in London.

They had good chemistry.

More important, they didn't drop the baton.

"It's not all about the speed," Kimmons said. "It's about the best four with the best communication."

The men's relay team has had their fair share of misadventures at major meets in the last four years. They botched an exchange at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, got disqualified for a lane infraction in Berlin the following year and tumbled out of the medal picture when Darvis Patton was bumped by another sprinter at worlds last summer in South Korea.

But this could be the winning combination.

"That's the team — the team for the final," Kimmons said.

Kimmons' vision goes something like this: He opens the race to give the Americans a good start out of the blocks. From there, Gatlin and Gay will build on the lead before Bailey takes it home.

"And when Bailey gets the stick, we hope to already be in front of the Jamaicans."

A solid plan, provided they hang on to the baton.

"Everybody is asking us, 'Are you going to at least get the stick around the track?'" Kimmons said. "I take that to the heart. By me being the driver, I'm going to do everything in my power to put the U.S. in a position to go for the gold."

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AROUND THE TRACK: Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross were among the sprinters working out at the track on Monday. ... Asked if a world record could be broken if it's damp and cold in London, sprinter Wallace Spearmon said: "It affects the sprinters a lot more than distance runners. But there's still a possibility."

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