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An Olympic encounter reveals blazing modesty

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An Olympic encounter reveals blazing modesty
The United States’ LaShawn Merritt (front) and (rear, from left) Angelo Taylor, David Neville and Jeremy Wariner celebrate winning the gold in the final of the men’s 4x400-meter relay during the athletics competitions in the National Stadium at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008. Merritt also took home the gold medal in the men’s 400-meter race. (Photo: AP /David J. Phillip)

Even in the bustling chaos of the San Francisco airport, they stood out — a clutch of black men in USA Olympic gear, oversized bags at their feet as they leafed through magazines just outside the security gate.

The blue warm-ups and lean frames marked them as athletes. The baggy jeans, earrings and easy laughter marked them as young brothers, out in the world and ready to board a plane.

Curiosity would not overcome their circle of camaraderie. I walked by them toward the gate, wondering who they were, where they came from, what events they were preparing to compete in.

Juggling a carry-on, photo ID and boarding pass, I didn’t notice them getting in line behind me until it was time to throw my bag on the conveyor belt. The nearest athlete — a tall, handsome Olympian with a slight goatee and rippling sinews in his forearms — looked up shyly, more teen than man.

“Headed to Beijing?” I asked.

He nodded. The athletes stopped their chatter for a moment and leaned forward, like a group of curious school kids.

“What event?”

He smiled. “400 meters.”

Thinking back to the days I followed track, when distances were measured in yards, I asked, “So what do you run — 48 seconds?”

He shook his head and said, quietly, “No, 43.9.”

“That’s blazing! So, what’s your name?”

He shook my hand. “LaShawn Merritt.”

“Well, LaShawn, you’re my Olympic hero. I’m keeping an eye on you.”

Merritt smiled, the young men behind him chuckling softly. Minutes later, they emerged together from the screening gate and walked off down the concourse, a gaggle of blue sweats and five-ring hats, strolling toward Beijing and the Olympic games.

When I got back to Boston, a Google search showed that Merritt was not just a member of the squad, but the favorite to upset returning Olympic 400-meter champion Jeremy Wariner. Despite having defeated Wariner twice earlier in the year, online stories about the U.S. track team favored in-depth profiles of Wariner over his 22-year-old rival.

No longer. Leading a U.S. sweep of the event in the Bird’s Nest on Aug. 22, the young Virginia native lowered his personal best to 43.75 seconds to take only the second men’s track and field gold for the Stars and Stripes.

More medals and accolades will come. Endorsements. Heightened expectations and hype.

The world will see a lot more of LaShawn Merritt, with the tape replayed, over and over, of the kinetic wonder crossing the finish line yards ahead of Wariner, his chain flying, white shoes flashing.

But the image that will remain with me is of the modest young man with the easy smile, a genteel ambassador of speed enjoying the quiet fellowship of his Olympic brothers.