DAEGU, KOREA -—LaShawn Merritt calls it "'my Virginia Shuffle.''
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly would have loved it.
It was the quick sidestep that freed him from a major traffic jam and gave him the daylight to barrel down the homestretch and give Team USA a dramatic 2:59.31 victory in the men's 4x400-meter relay at the 13th World Championships of Track and Field Friday night at Daegu Stadium.
"I was boxed in and had to do something, the finish line was coming up on us pretty fast," said the Portsmouth product and Wilson High alumnus who'd taken the silver medal in the individual 400 meters at the Worlds two days earlier.
Everything was riding on a come-through performance by Merritt - the 2008 Olympic and 2009 World champion in the 400 - and he did not disappoint.
"LaShawn was cool, calm and collected," said USA head coach Vin Lananna. "He's an old pro at this. He can handle situations. And, one more time, he came through for the team.''
"We've all worked too hard to get here; I wasn't about to let this one get away, I wasn't going to disappoint my teammates,'' Merritt said.
Belgium took a first-leg lead and then Jamaica took over, with South Africa and USA in hot pursuit. Rounding the final turn, South Africa's L.J. Van Zyl and Jamaica's Leford Grfeen seemed to have Merritt squeezed on the rail. Desperation measures were needed. The "shuffle" became the solution.
Once in the clear, Merritt shifted into sprint gear and could not be caught, running an unofficial 44.5 split. South Africa (2:59.87) settled for second with Jamaica (3:00.10) and Russia (3:00.22) and Belgium (3:00.41) hard on their heels.
Greg Nixon, Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor ran the first three legs for USA, but Merritt was touched off well back of Van Zyl and Green.
"Sure it was closer than we liked but the 4x4 has always been an American event,'' said Merritt. "We gave everything. Each man left it all on the track. I just did what I had to.''
It was the fourth consecutive USA men's 4x400 title at the Worlds. Merritt had contributed a 44.16 anchor split on the 2:57.86 winning team at Berlin in 2009, and a 44.4 anchor on the 2:55.56 winners at Osaka in 2007.
Before Merritt collected his second medal of the World Championships, Kelie Wells and Francena McCorory were readying for podium runs of their own.
Hampton grad Wells steamed through her opening-round heat of the women's 100-meter hurdles in impeccable 12.73-second fashion, second best time notched by the 38-runner field competing in five sections. Teammates Danielle Carruthers (12.79) and Dawn Harper (12.89) joined her in the Saturday semifinals.
But the event favorite remains Sally Pearson of Australia, who came to Daegu riding a 14-meet winning streak and led all qualifiers here at 12.53.
"Everything is fine.. no pains, no aches," Wells said.
"I'm completely over 2008 (when she crashed out of the Olympic Trials, with a torn hamstring tendon in the semifinals.) We're in 2011 and I'm gunning for a medal. It is a strong field. It's going to take mental toughness.
"I'm in great company, too. My teammates are very, very talented. I'm probably the rookie of them. They are awesome women. We hang out with each other."
"Kellie Wells looked outstanding,'' said Hampton coach Maurice Pierce. "She's definitely ready to win a medal. But Pearson is going to be very hard to beat. She has everything down pat. She's so technically strong.''
Hampton alumna McCorory, fourth in the individual 400-meter final, isn't about to allow her second medal opportunity slip away. She ran second leg on the USA women's 4x400 relay team that won its semifinal section in 3:23.37, in convincing decision over Ukraine (3:24.13) and Belarus 3:24.28.)
Natasha Hastings (50.9) and Jessica Beard (49.8) set it up for McCorory, and Keshia Baker anchored in 51.7.
The Americans' top threats in the Saturday final seem to be Russia (3:20.94) and Jamaica (3:22.01), winners of the other semis. Team USA has won the last two, and three of the last four, women's 4x400 finals at the Worlds.
"Natasha and Jessica made it extremely easy for me,'' said McCorory. "I just kept the lead, that was my only job.''