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Merritt_AriesQ-London17.jpGAries Merritt, London WC, 110m hurdles, photo by PhotoRun.net

The Incredible Journey Of Oly Champ, WR Holder Continues

August 6th, 2017

London, England

It is difficult to believe that just two years ago, Aires Merritt - the then-reigning Olympic champion and world record holder in the 110 meter hurdles - was, in essence, fighting for his life. Arriving in Beijing to compete in the 2015 IAAF world championships, the American hurdler at last went public with the news release that he had been battling chronic kidney dysfunction and would be speeding back to the States after the Worlds competition to receive a kidney transplant from his sister Latoya Hubbard. Somehow, someway, Merritt - suffering from collapsing focal segmental glomerulosclerosis and competing with a dangerously low level of kidney function - found a way to string together 3 consecutive seasonal bests, including a clean 13.03 in the final, to capture the bronze. After the final, a beaming and somewhat incredulous Merritt proclaimed to the media, "This medal will shine brighter than my Olympic gold medal."

Since then, the American hurdler has undergone the successful transplant and recovery, resumed rigorous training, and recaptured the ability to compete in the 110 meter hurdles at the sport's highest levels.

Just 9 months after his surgery, the former NCAA champion was hard after it - out on the oval, regaining his form, and clawing his way back. At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Merritt amazingly made it to the finals where his 4th place finish in 13.22 just missed a trip to Rio. While there would be no Olympic title defense for Merritt, the determined athlete had shown the world - and, more importantly, himself - that he could make it all the way back

In 2017, the former University of Tennessee star has continued to display continued post-surgery progression. Just 18 months after his emergency transplant, Merritt captured the indoor national 60m hurdles title in the rarified Albuquerque air with a 7.51 clocking. In early June, Merritt rang up an impressive Diamond League victory in Rome, finishing in 13.13 to defeat Spain's Orlando Ortega and reigning world champion Sergey Shubenkov. In the outdoor nationals held in the Sacramento steam bath, the former Olympic champion advanced nicely through the rounds and in the final finished 2nd to Aleec Harris to make yet another USA world team.

In London, aspiring hurdlers have confronted more than just stiff competition. Challenged by unusual early round scheduling, the men's high hurdlers found themselves facing a two-race opening day with the first round and the semi-finals separated by less than 8 hours. The tight agenda was especially tough on the American hurdle contingent. After Devon Allen, Harris, and Merritt [with the early morning's fastest clocking of 13.16], advanced to the semis, the sledding became a lot tougher. Both Allen and Harris failed to advance further while Merritt [13.25] - recovering from an early race imbalance - earned an automatic qualifier when he rallied over the final barriers to finish second to Hungary's Balazs Baji [13.23]. With his countrymen sent to the sidelines, the 32-year old Merritt will - for the first time in world championship history - be the sole Yankee to advance to Monday's final.

After grabbing an automatic qualifier in the semi-final, the unflappable Merritt was pretty chill in the mixed zone. Apparently when you overcome a life-threatening kidney disease, endure the rigors of a transplant, and nonetheless regain world class hurdler status, very little gets you rattled. "I was expecting all three of us to make it through. But things happen. That's just the way of the sport. There are a lot great hurdlers out there right now. I'm just pleased to be one of them still," states Merritt. Looking ahead to the final, Merritt, the realist, is candid about what he needs to do to succeed. "I expect it to be a lot quicker. Everyone has to deal with the 7½ hour gap in the in between rounds which is unorthodox for sure. It's something we have to deal with. And tomorrow my goal is to be a lot more aggressive and not so relaxed. I feel like because my semi-final lacked many major names, I didn't execute as well as I should have. And that's a problem because I am so used to having 'the semi-final of death' - like heat one." Adds Merritt playfully. "I'm normally in that 'semi-final of death' and it forces me to execute a lot better. But I'm really happy with what I did. I made it to the next round. And all I need is a lane."

The 2004 world junior hurdles champion knows what it will take to win a frenzied final. "I think whoever executes a clean race is going to be the victor. It's all about running clean in the finals because a lot of stuff is happening: a lot of hurdles are getting knocked over; people are hitting each other. It's never super clean. It's kind of ugly. So the best technician will definitely be the victor."

Speaking with the world record holder, one can readily observe how the personal trials of the last 2 years have endowed him with a certain serenity he employs to his advantage amidst the pressure of global championships. "My whole purpose in life as of late is to inspire everyone because a lot of people counted me out. A lot of people never thought I'd be back on the world stage. And here I am in the world final. And after having a kidney transplant less than 2 years ago, I am just so pleased to be back and to have such a warm welcome from the crowd. The fans are just phenomenal. So I am just happy to be able to do what I do and to have so much love and support from everyone."

Aries Merritt knows a top flight performance in the 110 meter hurdle final would have special meaning for him, would be yet another milestone on his journey to come all the way back. "I am really excited about tomorrow. A great performance tomorrow would mean the world to me," he confides. "Hopefully, I am able to make the podium. That's the ultimate goal. What color? I don't care as long as I am on the podium. I have accomplished so much in my career." Flashing that trademark smile, Aries Merritt offers one final thought before dashing off for his cooldown. "Obviously, a win would be preferred. But if I don't win, it won't be the end of the world because I am doing something that no one has ever done in history."

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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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