ISTANBUL — When Aries Merritt shot out of the blocks to deny Liu Xiang victory in the 60-meter hurdles, he clinched more than just an unlikely victory.
The American hurdler, who was thought to have little chance against the Chinese great, won the title and cemented a record gold medal haul for the U.S. team at the world indoor championships.
“We psyched up everybody, including myself,” said U.S. captain Bernard Lagat, who won his own gold in the 3,000. “We came together as a team.”
It bodes well for a great show at the London Olympics. No other country had more than two golds.
Lagat was a prime example. At 37, he had a devastating kick to shake off two younger Kenyans over the final lap to defend his 3,000 title.
Starting Friday morning, Ashton Eaton began building on his heptathlon world record and shot putter Ryan Whiting clinched the first gold later that day. The Americans were already on a roll.
“We always come to these meets saying, ‘USA is the best team in the world,'” said Christian Taylor, who took silver behind teammate Will Claye in Sunday’s triple jump. “You just keep that mindset and you want to do your part also.”
While Lagat won yet another gold in the twilight of his career, Claye is only 20 years old.
“It’s going to be tough to make the U.S. team” for the London Games, Claye said.
The 10 golds at the Atakoy Arena were two better than the previous record. And several times, the toughest competition an American faced was another American.
In the women’s long jump, Brittney Reese jumped a championship record 23 feet, 8¾ inches on her last attempt to push American teammate Janay Deloach to silver at 22-10¾ and become the first back-to-back winner in the event.
Reese said she was driven by a new motto that might well apply to all Americans at the championships.
“My coach came up with this idea of, ‘See it. Feel it. Trust it,’ and that is what I have been trying to come out and do,” Reese said.
As captain, Lagat came up with a stirring speech before the championships, telling his teammates to “run as hard as you can, jump as high as you can. Jump, pole vault. Because, you know what, this is the time. There’s no other time.”
Lagat won his third title by breaking free with 100 meters to go to beat Kenyan rivals Augustine Choge and Edwin Soi. Mo Farah was the favorite, but he finished fourth. The Briton beat Lagat in a stirring 5,000 finish at the world outdoor championships in August.
Lagat knew the Kenyans would set the pace, so he didn’t fall back and risk being surprised by a sudden breakaway. When the final surge came, he was prepared.
Lagat said he thought to himself: “I am going to stay here because those guys are strong.”
Merritt set the pace in his final. Fastest out of the blocks, he even got the better of Liu, the 2004 Olympic champion who was trying out a new start with one step less to the first hurdle to keep the opposition at bay.
When Liu saw the blur of Merritt, it immediately unsettled him.
“I knew Aries Merritt is a fast starter,” Liu said. “So I got out in a rush and was not able to control my technique.”
The meet could have been even better for the Americans.
The women’s 4×400 relay produced the most exciting finish of the championships when 400 champion Sanya Richards-Ross came back from fourth place with 200 meters to go and missed gold by just .01 seconds when Perri Shakes-Drayton of Britain threw herself across the line first.
The men’s 4×400 team crossed the line first, but the gold was delayed for two hours after a British protest over a handover technicality first led to disqualification before the gold was reinstated on appeal.
On a big day for the Americans, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva also made a statement. She ended a three-year gold medal drought by winning the pole vault with just two jumps.
Isinbayeva set a world record of 16 feet, 5¼ inches last month and failed to improve that after clinching gold. It was Isinbayeva’s fourth indoor world title but her first in four years. Over the same period, she also lost her world outdoor title.
“I was waiting for this victory like a mother is waiting to give birth to her baby,” Isinbayeva said. “The last three years showed me how important it is for me to win.”