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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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Aries Merritt, photo by PhotoRun.net

 

For virtually all of the hundreds of international athletes who have traveled to Beijing from all corners of the globe to compete in this 15th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, their competitions here not only represent the most important and unforgettable moment in their lives, but also pose the greatest challenge they will ever face. But this is not the case for American hurdle star Aries Merritt.

The 30-year old Merritt - the world record holder and the reigning Olympic champion in the 110 meter high hurdles - is facing an even greater moment and challenge in his life. Upon arriving in China, Merritt met with IAAF officials and revealed that for the last two years he has been battling a deteriorating kidney situation that will require an immediate and delicate transplant surgery promptly upon the conclusion of these championships. Merritt's communication with the IAAF about his critical kidney situation and the subsequent release of this information by the media represented the first public news of Merritt's private medical struggle.

Knowledge of the world record-holder's kidney dysfunction helped promote understanding of the hurdle star's lackluster performances over the past two years. After a storybook year in 2012 - when the Georgia native perfected his 7-step approach, won the World Indoor hurdle championship, struck 110H Olympic gold in the London Games, and concluded his year with a flawlessly-executed and breathtaking world record [12.80] high hurdle race on a windless night in Brussels - his listless hurdle performances over the past two outdoor seasons had confounded all who follow track and field.

Merritt's kidney issues - which first emerged late in the summer of 2013 - stem from a rare genetic disorder found predominantly in African Americans. Currently, the hurdle star is struggling with 20% functionality in his kidneys. After Friday's finals, Merritt will fly back to the United States to Phoenix where he will meet up with his sister Latoya Hubbard - his donor - for a kidney transplant which is scheduled to be performed Tuesday morning, September 1st.

The former University of Tennessee athlete has embraced these championships as not only an athletic opportunity, but also as a coping mechanism to allow him to transfer his focus away from the delicate surgery that awaits him and his sister. His first two performances in the Bird's Nest have stunned both Merritt and his followers. In Wednesday morning's opening round, Merritt skimmed the hurdles in 13.25 to win his heat and advance to the next round. In Thursday evening's semi-finals, Merritt again claimed victory - winning his semi in a sparkling, cleanly-run 13.08. His clocking was his season's best, his quickest in the last two years, and the fastest time of all of the semi-finalists here. After his semi, the incredibly composed winner addressed the media in the mixed zone. "It's my season's best this year [13.08]," declared Merritt to the assembled press. "I'm very pleased with that. And I'm just pleased to be here. I am pleased to be able to put everything together in the semi-final. And hopefully I can put it together again for one more race tomorrow. And hopefully I'll make the podium."

Merritt was happy to offer his analysis of his crisp and clean semi-final performance. "The race was very clean. I executed my start very well. And then I just tried to build my momentum from there," he explained. "I executed my race. I tried to be very clean over the hurdles because I've been having that issue where I've been hitting hurdles all year. It's been not clean. It's been ugly. And so I really wanted to clean it up and have a technically sound race. And I pulled that off here today." When pressed to explain why he - in the face of his health woes and all that awaits him back in the States - is just now starting to look more like the Merritt of old, the hurdle star confesses, "I have no idea."

When asked how he can possibly concentrate on his event with upcoming critical surgery he faces less than a week away, the Olympic champion calmly explains how he has turned the medical situation to his advantage. "It's been mentally tough for me to compete and to take losses and to know that you're the best ever and to not be able to perform at your best. But I'm not thinking about that right now," explained Merritt. "I'm thinking about just execution and trying to be the best that I can through every round. And now that I'm in the final I'm going to try to do the exact same thing, try to be the best that I can, try to run nice clean race, and hopefully a medal will be there waiting for me at the end."

The high hurdle world record holder - who throughout his career has always been upbeat and cooperative with the press - was candid about the anxiety he harbors about next week's procedure and how he has elected to deal with it. "After the finish line tomorrow definitely scares me. It's going to be tough after these championships to know that I have to have a transplant . It's very tough and very scary" he shared. "But I can't focus on that right now. I have to focus on these championships. I have to take my mind off of what's going on with my physical conditions and try to be mentally tough for this final. To be honest, there is nothing that makes me more nervous than the surgery that's impending. But competition is a good distraction from that. And I just want to go out there and compete to the best of my abilities."

Merritt - who had privately harbored information about his serious medical condition for two years - has been buoyed and comforted by the support he has received since details of his health struggles have been made public. "I've gotten a lot of support from my fans - and from people I don't even know," revealed Merritt. "They just come up and say, 'We support you. We're so inspired.' And it is just a blessing to have so many supporters."

Before concluding with reporters, the man who completely dominated the high hurdles just 3 years ago offered a glimpse of what winning a World Championship medal would mean to him. "It would mean the world to me because I don't have a world championship medal of any color. So I don't care what color the medal is. As long as I get one, I'm happy."

During these World Championships, there have been many outstanding and special moments - Barber's stunning and unexpected pole vault victory; Bolt's sprint double; Taylor's spectacular American record triple jump; Felix's 400 meter domination: Silva's late-event snatch of the pole vault crown; Infeld's surprise medal in the 10,000; Wlodarczyk's crushing win in the women's hammer, to name a few. And there will be more such moments to come in the remaining days here. But none will compare if Aries Merritt - with all that is swirling around him - can find a pathway to the podium in tonight's 110 meter hurdle final.

RunBlogRun Some photographs on this site have been reproduced with permission from runblogrun.com.