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Wariner doesn’t have good handle on losing

EUGENE, Ore. -- Jeremy Wariner skipped the traditional victory lap after the men’s 400 team was determined Thursday at the U.S. Olympic trials, leaving winner LaShawn Merritt and surprise third-place finisher David Neville to soak up the adulation of the crowd at Hayward Field.

Wariner, the 2004 Olympic 400-meter champion and two-time world champion, also skipped the post-race news conference. That left an empty seat next to Merritt and Neville, whose 44 seconds flat and 44.61 were sandwiched around Wariner’s 44.20.

To lose is forgivable. To sulk is not.

More than an hour after the race, long after Merritt and Neville had declared the U.S. men poised to sweep the 400 in Beijing and had taken their flowers and medals to wherever they planned to celebrate, Wariner emerged from his self-imposed seclusion with a steady voice and obvious regrets.

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His trademark dark sunglasses were pushed atop his head, revealing that his eyes were dry. But he was still sorting through his emotions, wondering where things went wrong and how he can fix them before Beijing.

He was asked if the problem had been his shoes.

No.

“I’ve been wearing these shoes all season,” he said.

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Nor, he said, could his runner-up finish be blamed on his controversial decision to leave longtime mentor Clyde Hart for Michael Ford earlier this year. Wariner, despite continued success, had offered Hart a new contract that called for a pay cut.

“That happened in February. This is June,” Wariner said, his tone biting. “The whole coaching situation is over.”

And maybe it isn’t.

Though Merritt has beaten Wariner before, notably at a Golden League meet in Berlin on June 1, this loss clearly gnawed at him.

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“I tried to make a move at 150 [meters] and I should have waited a little longer,” said Wariner, who usually has a strong finishing kick but couldn’t cut into Merritt’s lead coming off the curve.

“It wasn’t strategy. I just didn’t execute right.”

He didn’t mean to snub Merritt and Neville when he didn’t join them in the victory lap, he said.

That doesn’t matter. He still came off as a bad loser, even if he did win a spot on the Olympic team.

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“At the moment I was disappointed with the way I ran,” he said. “I needed to calm down a little bit.”

Merritt, with great generosity, said he didn’t think less of Wariner for skipping the public celebration.

“He’s not a poor sportsman at all,” Merritt said. “He congratulated me. I told him congratulations.

“At the end of the race we all congratulated each other. And we’re all going to Beijing, and that’s what matters.”

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But it’s Merritt, who turned 22 last week and spent most of his birthday traveling to Eugene from his Virginia home, who goes to Beijing as the Olympic trials champion.

That means a lot. Especially to Merritt, who was second to Wariner at last year’s World Championships.

“I’m not surprised that I won. I train to win,” Merritt said. “That’s my motto. If I got second I would have been satisfied. If I got third I would have been satisfied.

“But I’m not surprised. I didn’t feel like I was the underdog coming in because this is what I do and this is what he does. He trains every day, I train every day. He laces his shoes up the way I do. We got into a fight and I won today.”

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Winning in Berlin “gave me confidence in my training,” he said.

“Whatever would have happened in Berlin, my training’s been going well since last year. To come in second, I felt like I was one spot away from being first in the world. I’ve been training hard to be number one ever since.

“After the World Championships last year I started to train hard. I said, ‘This year I’m going to be number one,’ and that’s what I’ve been training to do.”

He did it with persistence and power, never looking around for Wariner as they approached that final curve.

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“I really didn’t see him,” Merritt said. “At that point my main focus was to cross the line. I won and I’m happy and I’m ready to go home now.”

Neville, 24, moved to Southern California last August to train with John Smith. He didn’t run track his freshman year at Indiana -- he performed with the marching band -- but has made rapid progress and was the U.S. indoor champion last season.

“They’re both great runners,” he said of Merritt and Wariner. “Great competitors. I guess they’ve been 1-2 in the world the last couple of years. And they’re both great and I’m just happy to be out there with them.”

Wariner should have been there with them for the victory lap. By missing it, he diminished himself, not them or the occasion.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


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