After rollercoaster year, Merritt on the road to recovery
By Dave Hunter
Stories of athletes overcoming physical adversity to stage dramatic comebacks are omnipresent in sports. Think of the numerous NBA players who rehab and return from debilitating ACL injuries. Or, the many Major League pitchers who work hard to perform well after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Successful and heroic efforts like those will pale in comparison, if United States 110m hurdler Aries Merritt can fully recover from the kidney transplant he underwent, just days after finishing third in his speciality at the 15th IAAF World Championships in Athletic this summer.
Track and field aficionados were in awe in Beijing as the reigning Olympic champion – whose career has been in a tailspin for the last 3 years as he privately battled a rare kidney ailment – was somehow able to compartmentalise his focus, regain his 2012 form, and post 3 successive seasonal bests to capture the 110H bronze medal. Prior to exiting the Bird’s Nest to catch a plane back to the States for his surgery, the world record holder – who had never previously stood on the world championship podium – told the media, “This medal will shine brighter than my Olympic gold medal.”
“I feel really good”
Some three weeks after Merritt received a kidney from his sister Latoya, the world championship medalist was in good spirits. “I feel really good. Everything is better and better,” states Merritt, who underwent kidney transplant surgery on September 1st at Phoenix’s Mayo Clinic. “Everyone feels better about my recovery. Literally every day I am able to do more and more, mobility wise. My kidney function is back up to normal. My basic diet is pretty much normal,” notes the young hurdler who is continuing his recovery in his greater Phoenix residence. “I’ve pretty much recovered from the surgery. My immunity is slowly coming back. It’s a slow process, but eventually I will be functioning and training like normal.”
Daily medication is the only new facet to post-transplant life for the 26-year-old. “I can’t come off the medication I am currently taking. If I do, I’ll end up losing the kidney. I can’t afford to do that,” explains Merritt. “There are no really bad byproducts to the medication. The only thing the medication does is lower my immune system so, I have a higher risk of infection. So, I could get sicker faster than normal people. I am just going to have to deal with it.”
The transplant hopefully brings the curtain down on a difficult three-year private health struggle for the Olympic champion whose post-2012 hurdling slump confounded the track and field world. “It was after the World Championships in Moscow. I was feeling sluggish and feeling like something wasn’t right. I wasn’t able to finish my races and I felt like I was in good shape,” reveals Merritt, in explaining his first recognition that something was quite wrong.
Losing his rhythm
“I thought in 2013 I would win Worlds after the Paris Diamond League meeting, where I ran 13.09 for the victory. I thought I was a shoo-in to win the Worlds. My training had been going very well. In training camp I was running under 13 second pace. So I thought I would be able to duplicate that rhythm in Moscow.”
But Merritt’s rhythm – a critical ingredient to hurdling success – suddenly vanished.
“I couldn’t finish because of the kidney disorder. So my kidneys were already failing me when I was in Moscow and I had no idea.” Upon his return to Arizona, Merritt sought help. “By the time I checked into the Mayo Clinic, it was late September. That was when the doctors determined that my kidney function was at 15% and falling fast, that I was going to have to quit my career and go into dialysis, and all this stuff.
“But I didn’t have to do the dialysis because the tests they subsequently ran allowed me to sidestep that. The kidney function then recovered. But then it started to fall off again for various reasons.” It took a while until Merritt’s medical team could pinpoint the problem as collapsing FSGS syndrome – a malady that would ultimately require a transplant.
In the seasons that followed, Merritt’s lacklustre hurdle performances continued as the world record holder elected to keep his medical struggle a private matter while his medical team monitored his condition and sought a suitable donor. But upon Merritt’s arrival in Beijing for August’s IAAF World Championships, the Olympic champion reversed field and disclosed information about his serious kidney ailment.
“I just got tired of hiding it,” admits Merritt. “I was tired of not letting people know why I wasn’t competing at my maximum potential. People were asking questions. People were speculating drugs. And I just didn’t want to be labeled as a druggie. And so, I wanted to let people know that I don’t take drugs; I’m human; I have a health issue – like normal people.”
Merritt also thought a full unveiling of his struggle could motivate others. “I felt like it was an inspiring story and it would inspire people to not give up and to keep pursuing things they love doing. That was one of the main reasons why I went public in Beijing.”
Mystifying the now-enlightened public as well as himself, Merritt turned in storybook performances in Beijing, recording winning times of 13.12 and 13.08 respectively in his first round and semi-final races – marks he hadn’t posted since his magical 2012 Olympic championship and world record-setting season. Somehow, the chronically-ill hurdler was able to summon one last supreme effort in the final – running a clean 13.04 to grab the bronze behind Russia’s Sergey Shubenkov [12.98] and Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment [13.03].
“I changed my flight,” states Merritt in explaining how his medal-winning performance altered his travel plans. “I didn’t want to miss the medal ceremony. I felt like that was a really big deal. So I stayed in China and did the medal ceremony,” notes Merritt in discussing his podium appearance – one of the most poignant moments of the Championships as a knowing capacity crowd showered the bronzed medalist with a loud and sustained standing ovation. “Then I packed my bag and the next morning I actually flew out on the first plane out of Beijing.”
Business partners can be fickle when an athlete’s performance suffers. Not so with Aires Merritt. “Nike has been very supportive. They actually had a member of their sports marketing team here with me for my surgery. They were very concerned about my well-being,” explains Merritt. “They could have dropped me, to be honest. But they didn’t. It shows they believe in me still.” And with a laugh tinged with confidence, he adds, “And they will continue to believe in me because I am going to continue to do amazing things.”
Now a month beyond the surgery, Merritt is eagerly looking forward to the rapidly-approaching Olympic year. “The doctors are very happy with how my healing process has been going,” states Merritt. “My kidney function is already above 90%. My lab work is practically normal. The only thing I really suffered with was blood loss. But those levels are back up to normal.”
Forced to rest
The current medically-imposed restraints on his activity coincide perfectly with Merritt’s regularly-scheduled post-season down time. “Activity-wise, I am currently not allowed to do anything – no training. But I am on vacation – on break – right now. I’m not training anyways because these are my 6 weeks off. And my recovery process is 6 weeks. I am hoping to start back training at the normal time with slight restrictions until they clear me to lift weights. They want me walking around because walking around promotes recovery. And I’ve been doing a lot of walking. They don’t want me to do any running now – because they don’t want me to get a hernia.”
Will he be able to resume training at the beginning of the Olympic year as he normally would?
“Yeah. Exactly. This is exactly why the surgery was planned on September 1st – so I could have that maximum amount of recovery time without having to cut so much of the season out, so much of my fall training out,” explains Merritt. “I am hoping to come back in 6 weeks’ time and be able to start my base training. But if I have to wait a few weeks, that is not going to be a big deal – I can make that up. I am not too worried about that.”
“They have no idea how hard it’s been”
“I am very optimistic. I am really pleased that I’m going be feeling really, really good next year,” declares Merritt, whose transplant also seems to have provided a restored sense of confidence. “Despite the fact that I really didn’t have any meaningful kidney function last year, I ran 13.04 and I medalled at Worlds. My kidney functionality then was under 15% and my kidney now is over 90% and I feel much better energy-wise than I have in years. Now I feel way more energetic. I’m losing the anemia. At Worlds, I was always cold. That’s why you always saw me with long sleeves on even though it was really hot and humid outside. It was because I was anemic. But now that I have a normal kidney, all those problems go away and I am able to focus on real training. A lot of people don’t understand the way it was for me these past couple years. So they have no idea of how hard it’s been – and how easy it’s about to be – for me. I am really excited about next year.”
Notwithstanding Merritt’s optimism, the task before him should not be underestimated. Prior to his surgery, the Olympic champion’s physicians were unable to guarantee he would even run again – much less be able to compete on the world level in an exacting, and technically-complex event such as the 110 meter hurdles. But the world record holder’s determined resolve must not be overlooked either.
This is an athlete who several years ago had the patience and the willingness to disassemble and reconstruct his hurdling technique to incorporate a new 7-step approach – a time-consuming alteration that ultimately allowed him to go on a 2012 hurdling tear like no other. If Aries Merritt is able to rebound from kidney transplant surgery and regain world class form, it wouldn’t simply be a great athletic comeback. It would be one of the greatest athletic comebacks of all time.
Used with permission from RunBlogRun