Aries Merritt begins defense of his Olympic gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the U.S. track and field trials. Some would consider just getting back to the Olympics a victory for Merritt.
Despite a kidney transplant less than a year ago, Merritt’s goal remains gold.
“If I was to pull off Olympic gold no less than a year after surgery, I mean, it’s almost impossible to do what I’m trying to do,” Merritt admitted. “But I think anything is possible when you put your mind to it, and I feel like you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.”
Merritt owns the third-best time among Americans this season with a 13.24 he ran in Beijing on May 18. David Oliver (13.09) and Ronnie Ash (13.18) enter with better times, and Cedar Hill’s Jason Richardson, the silver medalist at the London Games, still ranks as a contender.
The top three in Eugene, Ore., advance to Rio.
Merritt, 30, will become one of the most retold stories at the Rio Games if he qualifies.
I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a dream or feel that I could defend my title.
Hurdler Aries Merritt
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a dream or feel that I could defend my title,” said Merritt, who trained in Bryan before the 2012 Games but now trains in Phoenix. “I think as athletes we always strive to be great, and we strive to do amazing things, and this is no different.”
Merritt has come a long way in a short time.
The summer after the Olympics, Merritt didn’t feel like himself. He placed fifth at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow after feeling weak and sick.
Track and field’s world championships will be held for the first time in the United States in 2021. Hayward Field will host the prestigious meet.
Doctors in Phoenix diagnosed him with genetic kidney disease, which threatened his career.
“They said I couldn’t run again, and then I was depressed,” Merritt said. “I was mad. I was angry. I was a really mean person. It was almost like the joy had been snatched from me.”
He wondered if the World Championships in Beijing last August served as his last meet. Merritt won the bronze with his kidneys functioning at only 20 percent.
“Look what I achieved at the World Championships with under 20 percent kidney function,” Merritt said. “I achieved a bronze medal, and no one even thought I would make the final because, once they knew the story, they were like, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to write him off.’ ”
Merritt’s older sister, LaToya Hubbard, donated one of her kidneys and Merritt underwent a successful kidney transplant Sept. 1. He began running again in early December and returned to hurdling Dec. 19.
6 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials held at historic Hayward Field
“The first time I went over hurdles was really scary, and it was sloppy,” Merritt said. “It was like a baby deer trying to walk kind of. It was like, ‘Oh, this feels really bad.’ My coach is like, ‘It’s a start.’ I’m like, ‘No this is horrible because just a few months ago I was one of the best in the world.’
“After surgery, I was like, ‘Why are my knees wobbling all over the place? Why can I not pull my trail leg around quick enough? Why is it so delayed?’ As an athlete, I feel like you want everything right away, but we have to work. It’s like a slow process.”
Merritt is as good as old now, ready to do what no one thought was possible even a year ago.
“I feel empowered,” Merritt said. “I feel ready to compete and ready to show the world what I can really do now that I have a real body again.”
U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials
Hayward Field, Eugene, Ore.