Waterford's Merrill-Morin certainly has perspective on dashed Olympic dreams
Jan Merrill-Morin believes she first heard of the United States boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow on the radio when she arose for her early-morning workout on March 21, 1980, the day it was originally announced by President Jimmy Carter.
"Back then we didn't have 5,000 messages on our phones," she said earlier this week.
Merrill-Morin, then Jan Merrill, was a finalist in the 1,500 meters in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal as a 20-year-old Waterford High School graduate — she and her husband Jeff still reside in Waterford.
She set the American record in the semifinals in Montreal, finishing eighth in the next day's final. Yet she believed there'd be other opportunities to compete at the Olympics.
Then came the U.S. boycott in 1980, a response to the Soviet Union's refusal to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
In 1984, Merrill-Morin had recently captured the national championship in the 3,000 meters when she competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials for a spot in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. During a rare 55-degree day in June at LA Coliseum, Merrill-Morin never felt herself loosen up. She didn't run well, failing to capture one of the three U.S. bids up for grabs — the event was won by Mary Decker.
She never made another Olympic appearance.
So Merrill-Morin very much understands those athletes who may be reeling, as the postponement of the 2020 Games in Tokyo was made official Tuesday due to the world-wide spread of the new coronavirus.
International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told USA Today on Monday that "postponement has been decided" and several countries, including Canada, Australia and Germany, vowed that they would not send athletes to Tokyo if the Games were to start on time, scheduled to commence July 24. The IOC announced Tuesday that it would delay the Summer Games until 2021, but they will still be referred to as the 2020 Olympics.
Merrill-Morin, for 32 years a high school and college track coach now serving as the boys' indoor and outdoor track coach at Old Saybrook High School, has advice for those who are affected negatively by the postponement, as she was rocked by a boycott so many years ago.
"Just keep trucking," Merrill-Morin said in a telephone interview. "Keep playing, practicing, keep doing what you love to do. If you're passionate, you'll find some peace out there. Just keep doing what you're doing. You love it and it goes quick."
Merrill-Morin has accumulated perspective as an athlete and as a coach, enduring every contrasting emotion, both the moments of sheer jubilance — winning Pan Am Games gold medals in 1975 and 1979 and wandering daily around the Athletes Village in 1976 in Montreal, running into gold medal-winning gymnast Nadia Comaneci and a contingent of U.S. boxers including Ray Leonard on a regular basis — and the great disappointments.
In 1976, she felt things progressed perfectly.
"Everything flowed," she said. "All the stuff that was planned by the coach, it worked."
In 1980, she started out by setting the world record in the 5,000 meters. Following the announcement of the boycott, she continued to train, holding on to hope that the international dispute would be resolved. It was then, during a training session at UCLA, she was clipped by a random jogger and suffered a serious injury, leaving her unable to walk for a time.
Merrill-Morin describes preparation for an Olympics as "24-7, all year."
She skipped her graduation at Waterford High School because it conflicted with a track event, for instance, one of many sacrifices she made to train with the utmost seriousness. Her coach, Norm Higgins, kept her mainly away from the press, businesslike, belying her warmer nature.
Merrill-Morin is sympathetic to the fact that athletes in all sports will have their cycle of training altered for the 2020 Games.
"Who knows how many years people have been preparing just to have this moment in time, whether it be a swimmer, whichever sport? For some people it was this year," she said. "Some of the American women in middle distance running have been running phenomenally well, getting really ready to go for it. Will they have that same energy and flow?"
Merrill-Morin, 63, still jogs most days. She swims at the Westbrook YMCA when possible. She coached track at Rutgers University for eight years before returning to coach at Old Saybrook during the 2015-16 school year, a successful tenure which has yielded numerous girls' and boys' state champions for the Rams in the distance events.
Despite her many achievements, Merrill-Morin was asked, does she ever think "what if?" What if the boycott hadn't happened or the injuries or the ill-timed off day at the 1984 Olympic Trials?
"Of course," she said. "I think we all do. (But) so much good happened. You don't want to change too much. ... I have good memories. When I went to the Olympics there was a park, a training track right outside the stadium. There were all these superstars from 1972 and you would see them all on the training track. It was kind of an exciting time, a tough time, but I would say a happy time."
As for her Olympic moment in the 1,500 meters, Merrill-Morin ran three times on consecutive days in Montreal, July 28-30.
In round one, she finished third in her heat in 4 minutes, 10.92 seconds to qualify for the next day's semifinals. She broke the U.S. record by five seconds in the semis, finishing fifth in her heat in 4:02.61 and earning a wild-card berth to the championship heat. It was the fifth-fastest semifinal time among the nine finalists.
The 1,500-meter competitors raced again the next day, with Merrill-Morin finishing eighth in the championship event in 4:08.54. The race started out unusually slowly before the frontrunners suddenly exploded to the finish. Tatyana Kazankina, a 24-year-old representing the Soviet Union, was the gold medalist in 4:05.48.
"I finished eighth," Merrill-Morin said. "Boy, were they fast in the end. They just took off."
Again, Merrill-Morin's unique perspective helped temper any possible disappointment.
"I had just turned 20," Merrill-Morin said. "I made the finals and everyone thought I was going to win gold the next day. (But) I have a perception of how things go. Overall, I've got the whole picture going on. I knew (the result) was OK. I knew where I had come from and what I did."
Merrill-Morin's words resonate in a time of uncertainty for those hoping for roster spots in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
"Just keep trucking. If you're passionate, you'll find some peace out there," she said.
And that's coming from someone who knows.
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