Feature20 Aug 2015

Merritt is on the road to recovery after life-threatening illness


Aries Merritt at his home in Texas (© Getty Images)

Aries Merritt ended the 2012 season as the Olympic champion and world record-holder. In the space of a month, he had achieved his two biggest career goals. He was at the top of his game and poised to go on to greater things.

So to be told one year later that he may never run again was utterly devastating.

The US sprint hurdler had been struggling for form throughout most of 2013, incapable of producing his times from the previous season yet unable to explain why that was the case.

“At the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, I noticed that something was wrong,” said Merritt. “After Moscow, I started to get very sick. I had an extreme lack of energy, shortness of breath and difficulty recovering.”

Merritt felt a shadow of the athlete he was in 2012 when he had smashed the world 110m hurdles record with 12.80. Two months after the World Championships, he checked into the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

“When they told me I had kidney disease, I was heartbroken,” Merritt said, recalling his diagnosis. “Not being able to do the thing I love doing so much was very painful to come to terms with. I was in denial and for a while I was in a very depressed state of mind. I was happy they found the problem but I didn’t understand why it was happening to me after such an amazing season in 2012.”

The cause of Merritt’s kidney disease was a rare genetic disorder, found predominantly in African Americans. Added to that, Merritt’s kidneys were being further attacked by parvovirus B16, which got into his kidneys and bone marrow and wreaked havoc on his body.

“It was a double whammy,” said Merritt. “Just my luck of the draw.”

Merritt was in hospital from October 2013 to late April 2014. When he checked in, his kidney function was down to 15%. Just walking and menial everyday tasks were a challenge. His kidneys were so damaged that they couldn’t process protein, so that had to be taken out of his diet. Unable to eat properly, his weight dropped.

Training was out of the question.

“During that time, I couldn’t do any repetitions or any weights,” said Merritt. “But for my sanity, I went to training after many hours of treatment at the hospital, just so I could attempt to feel a little bit normal.”

He was treated with IVIG (intravenous immune globulin) to get rid of the parvovirus, which was his doctors’ main concern. Once that was out of his kidneys and bone marrow, the doctors attempted to recover what remaining kidney function the virus didn’t damage.

But it didn’t quite go to plan. Treatment had to be stopped because the IVIG didn’t mix well with Merritt’s blood, resulting in haemolysis, the destruction of red blood cells. His kidneys were improving, but the rest of his body was suffering.

Doctors eventually rectified the problems with the treatment and Merritt gradually began to recover. Off the back of minimal training, he competed at the Steve Scott Invitational in California in May 2014 and finished third in 13.78, his slowest time for four years and almost a full second shy of his world record.

He went on to compete on the international circuit that summer and didn’t win a single race, finishing seventh at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels, the scene of his world record just two years prior.

But Merritt was delighted with his season.

“When I returned to the sport, I wasn’t as frustrated as you would think,” he said. “After being told that I would never be able to run again, I was simply happy to be able to do what I love.

“Of course I was sad to under-perform but I literally had about four to six weeks of training before I returned to competition. Even with such low training volume, I was able to muster a 13.27 season’s best.”

Another year down the road, Merritt’s kidney function is still less than 20%. Running and training remains extremely difficult, but he is slowly regaining form.

He clocked a season’s best of 13.12 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene and then booked his spot on the US team for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing by finishing third at the US Championships.

The 110m hurdles can be unpredictable at the best of times. Combined with the USA’s cut-throat selection policy of the first three past the post at the trials, it makes it all the more impressive that Merritt has qualified to represent the USA at five successive global outdoor championships.

Making the latest team, though, was the biggest challenge.

“By far it’s the hardest team to make in the most competitive event in the USA, so it was a big relief to finish in the top three,” Merritt said. “Given what I’m going through, it’s a blessing. It gave me confidence, but I know there is still so much more I can offer. I just need to be 100% healthy to do it.

“Compared to the level I was at in 2012, I’d say I’m probably at about 75% fitness,” he added. “But after I recover from surgery, hopefully I will have a better chance of surpassing my previous record.”

The IAAF World Championships get underway tomorrow and the 110m hurdles final takes place exactly one week from now. On 1 September, just four days after the 110m hurdles final, Merritt will have a kidney transplant. But that doesn’t alter his aims for the coming week.

“My goal in Beijing is like everyone’s goal: to win and become world champion,” said Merritt with his trademark smile. “But in my current condition, even though the odds are against me, making the final and being a medallist would more than suffice.

“The past few years have been hard for me, but I hope to give inspiration to people who have had a life-threatening illness to not give up and still pursue their dreams.”

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF