Aries Answers: Milestones with Reigning Olympic gold medalist Aries Merritt
Aries Merritt was on top of the sprint-hurdles world in 2012 after his most accomplished season to date. But fast-forward to 2015, and a devastating diagnosis of kidney disease threatened to turn his life upside down and take away the career he had worked so hard to build.
Striving to get back into form, he competed in his first post-surgery event last weekend, where he clocked 7.60 in the 60-meter hurdles, and he still has plans to defend his Olympic gold medal in Rio.
USATF caught up with Merritt (Phoenix, Arizona) to take a walk down memory lane and to relive his highest and lowest moments from 2012 through this early point in 2016.
USATF: Where were you around this time in 2012?
AM: At this point in 2012, I had already opened my indoor campaign. I had just made the switch from eight steps to a seven-steps approach over the first hurdle. It was definitely difficult at the time, but I had to make due because it was what I needed to do to get better. Indoor Worlds was about a month and a half away.
USATF: How would you recap your 2012 indoor season?
AM: In 2012, my indoor season was like a dream come true. I won my first USATF indoor meet, and ended up making my first U.S. indoor team. To be able to adapt to the seven steps and adapt quickly was a blessing in disguise for me.
USATF: How do you remember the Olympic final at the London Games?
AM: I’ll never forget walking out on the track and the crowd was enormous. The crowd was screaming and yelling and there were flashes everywhere from all the pictures being taken. There was just a lot going on when I walked onto the track. I had to stay focused, so I was just waiting for my cue to wave to the crowd and then refocused on my cue that I had been telling myself all year.
When I got into those blocks and they called us to set, I had never felt a stadium be so still and so quiet. It was so silent and I eagerly waited for the gun to be shot. I reacted and I was almost in autopilot mode. I was just trying to do what I had done all year and just run my race. I got over the last hurdle; I leaned and I won, and I saw the time.
In the finals you’re not going to be as relaxed. The level of stress is much different than you have experienced for sure.
USATF: At what point over the next few years did you realize something wasn’t quite right with your body?
AM: I knew something was wrong with my body in 2013 after Moscow. I knew something was wrong because I couldn’t finish my race, and because I usually get faster as the hurdles come up in the race. I would stay the same speed if not decelerate. That was not my norm. In college and high school, I was always better at the latter half of the race. Shortly after Moscow, I was getting really sick. My stomach was bothering me, so I checked myself into the emergency room because something wasn’t right.
USATF: How did you react to hearing you had kidney disease?
AM: I was in denial at first. The conversation was that “you have a kidney disorder, your kidneys look really bad. We’re going to start dialysis. We’re going to give you a couple days to process this, and then you’re going to start your new life. You are pretty much done with your career,” which was just heartbreaking. How do you go from being at the height of your career to being at the lowest point of your life - literally dying?
What was competing at IAAF World Championships in 2015 like for you?
AM: Worlds was really sentimental for me because potentially it could have been my last competition because of the kidney disease. I didn’t know what the surgery had in store for me, so I really had to weigh my options because I didn’t know if that could be it for me. Competing at Worlds, I thought that was going to be my swan song and my farewell. It was very hard competing at Worlds knowing it could have been the end for me. I really love track and field. It’s a really big part of my life. It’s allowed me to explore and be on platforms I never thought I could be. Things happen in life. You just have to roll with the punches and hope for a better outcome. I hoped it would be just like my sister hoped that she would be a match and she was. Everything happens for a reason.
What were the hardest days in the last year?
AM: The hardest days of last year came when I was finished with Worlds and I had to get the transplant on Sept. 1. The hardest day was knowing that I was waking up and going into surgery. There was a chance that I wouldn’t wake up after the procedure, that my kidney would immediately reject the transplant or that any number of things could go wrong. I was really scared and nervous about that entire process.
What were some of the best days you’ve had in the last year?
AM: The best days of last year were winning the bronze at Worlds, making the U.S. team, running a really quick tie indoors; and despite the tie, the fact that I didn’t have any working kidneys. It was really just doing what I love, traveling the world and taking pictures and signing autographs that gave me joy. In 2015, it was like why do I have to be in this hospital bed? All of those things that I did on a normal basis - it made me appreciate them that much more.
Post surgery, what was the first day of practice like?
AM: My first day of practice was pretty basic. I just had acceleration. It was nice. It was really light and easy, but I was nervous I would rip my suture. It was in the back of my mind that I couldn’t push it too hard, but it was me pushing through what I thought was too hard that got me through the stiffness and soreness and scar tissue. It didn’t feel natural. It was getting over that initial fear of getting through that. I’m back training now and everything is great.
USATF: Who are your role models in the sport and outside of the sport?
AM: My role models in the sport are Allen Johnson and Liu Xiang not only because of their event (110m hurdles) but because of their poise, dedication for event and mastery of their craft. And I really look up to and respect them for that.
My mom is my role model outside of the sport because she raised me and my sister as a single mom. She did her best to give us the best lives so that we can succeed as adults.
USATF: Has the last 12 months changed your perspective on what it means to compete for Team USA?
AM: No, not really. Competing for Team USA is always an honor. It’s the hardest team on the planet to make, so it s a really great and special achievement. Being able to represent my country’s flag and being able to represent the team to the best of my ability is a privilege and an honor. Everyone wants you to succeed and do well.
USATF: When you think about Black History Month, what comes to mind most?
AM: Dr. Martin Luther King. You think of the man who paved the way for African-American and Black rights.