EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — LaShawn Merritt considers his 200-meter races to be more of a lark than anything else.
Think of the possibilities if they ever become a serious pursuit.
Already qualified for the Olympics in his “real” race, the 400, Merritt pulled away for an easy victory in the opening round of 200-meter qualifying at the rain-soaked U.S. Olympic Trials on Thursday, posting the night’s third-best time at 20.09 seconds.
He already has the world’s best time this year, at 19.78 seconds, and if world-record holder Usain Bolt’s hamstring injury turns out to be worse than expected — well, who knows what could happen?
“It’s not really a serious thing for me,” said Merritt, who also owns the fastest time at 400 meters this year. “I just want to have some fun with it, and if I have the ability to do it, I figure I’ll do it. I’ll try to make it as light as possible.”
Among those who take the 200 more seriously are worlds silver medalist Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Mike Rodgers and Wallace Spearmon, who is trying to return to the upper-echelon of this race after struggling with injuries. All made it through their first-round heats with ease.
Allyson Felix also views it as more work than play, and is trying to become the first woman to win Olympic gold in both events. Felix is already qualified at 400 meters and begins her quest in the 200, her specialty, on Friday.
Merritt could become the first man to win a 200-400 Olympic double since Michael Johnson in 1996. But his specialty is the 400 and he still has some goals there.
Among them: “World record,” he said. He won the Olympic gold in 2008, but pulled out of the first round in 2012 with a hamstring injury.
In his world, the 200 is mainly good training.
And yet, watching him pumping his fists as he hit the stretch, then steadily pulling away for a .44-second cushion over the second-place finisher, it was easy to see why he’s at least giving this a try.
“If anybody can do it, LaShawn can do it,” Gatlin said. “To watch him run is amazing. I know he’s got it in the tank. So let’s see him put it out there.”
Gatlin, a more seasoned veteran than Merritt at both the distance and the art of the double, saved energy in his opener, especially with rain starting to soak the track at Hayward Field.
He ran the 200 in 20.32 and finished .05 behind Ameer Webb. But all these prelim times go in the wastebasket almost as soon as they’re recorded.
“Just play it smart,” Gatlin said. “I’m on to the next round. Almost a blueprint of what I did in the 100. Go faster. Rise to the occasion.”
Other happenings on Day 6 of Olympic Trials:
SHOT DIVA: Michelle Carter (Twitter handle @shotdiva) already had her Olympic spot wrapped up. Then, she did the same thing as at world indoor championships in the spring: She won the meet on the last throw of the night. Her mark of 64 feet, 3 1/4 inches beat out Raven Saunders and knocked Felisha Saunders into third. Said veteran Jill Camarena-Williams, who finished fifth in what she said would be her last Olympic Trials: “I always wait to see Michelle’s last throw. I would never, ever leave.”
TRIPLE JUMP: Two-time NCAA champion Keturah Orji, who once dreamed of being an Olympic gymnast, will get a chance at another kind of title. She won the women’s triple jump and will head to Rio. On the men’s side, Christian Taylor’s quest for an Olympic repeat is on track. He needed one jump to make it through qualifying, and will try to secure his spot Saturday.
THE TOUGHEST JUMP: Stephanie Garcia was in the mix for an Olympic spot in steeplechase until the final lap. First, she got passed for the third position. Then, in her quest to catch up, she stumbled over the last barrier and went tumbling. Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley got the trips to Rio. Garcia said she still earned a victory of sorts: “I knew if I didn’t make it, then I was going to make those who did work very, very hard,” she said.
MORE MEDALS: Among Olympic medal winners who made it through their qualifying rounds Thursday were Leonel Manzano (1,500), Bershawn Jackson (400 hurdles) and Dawn Harper-Nelson (100 hurdles). Harper-Nelson, the 2008 gold medalist, was in the same heat with American record holder Keni Harrison, but barely noticed. “I tell my husband, ‘Tell me what lane I’m in and what heat. The rest doesn’t matter,’” Harper-Nelson said.
QUOTABLE: “With (Jamaica’s) rules, hopefully they’ll let him in. If not, it might be the first time the Olympic committee sends a personal invite to an athlete to come to the games. They’d lose some money if he didn’t show up.” — Spearmon, on the chances of Bolt making the Olympics despite his recent hamstring problems.