Summer came to an abrupt end for Aries Merritt. Three days after winning bronze at the Beijing World Championships, the 110m hurdles world record holder was given a new kidney by his sister in an operating theatre back in Arizona. Merritt's kidney function in Beijing had been "around 17%". Anything below 20% is deemed as failure.
In this exclusive excerpt from the Olympic champion's interview with Forever Sports – the only international media the 30-year-old has spoken to since leaving hospital – we learn the extent of Merritt's physical decline in 2015. Reading it, it is easy to appreciate why the bronze medal he won in August means more to him than any other.
The conversation took place ten days after Merritt's operation. He and LaToya, his sister and donor, were recovering well. He was at home, surrounded by family and in good spirits, filling time between hospital visits playing video games.
At the time he was hopeful of recovering in time for the indoor season, but a "small bump in the road" since has delayed his return, making a run out at the Portland world indoors in March unlikely. Though he is "bummed out" about missing the chance to perform at a home championships, Merritt has a main target for 2016: “I want to defend in Rio.”
Merritt and sister LaToya in hospital, pictured in Forever Sports
You've lost a lot of weight this season, and you look extremely lean, but you hurdlers do come in different shapes and sizes.
Ha yeah! I’m definitely not David Oliver size, that’s for sure! I can’t hurdle that big. He’s like 215/210 [lbs], and I’m like 160 [lbs].
It’s definitely a lot different style. I’m a finesse hurdler, he’s like a power hurdler. He can just plough through those things. I can’t do that! If I hit those hurdles, I’m so small and light it’ll just hit me back. And I don’t like it to hit back. It hurts!
Did that become worse as you lost increasing amounts of weight?
Yes! It did! If you look at my races over the course of this whole entire year, if I hit a hurdle I would instantly fade! Like as soon as I would hit one I’m like ‘goddammit!!’ I’d just hit it and I’d just get taken back so much that I was like ‘OK I can’t hit any’.
And the hurdles in Beijing, I made it a point to not hit those because those were heavy! I was like ‘OK I can’t hit these because these are really heavy and they hurt like heck’.
I hit one in warm up and I was like ‘Jesus Christ I can’t do this any more – it hurts so bad!’. I definitely hit one in warm up and I was pissed. I actually had to put ice on my knee because it was hurting a little bit, and that was before my first round.
So presumably you had to really, really focus on technique and concentrate on getting over the hurdles cleanly?
Yes. I was incredibly focused on my technique and being clean and not hitting any. Clean hurdlers win races typically. No matter how fast you are, if you don’t run clean then you don’t win.
Merritt posted eight of the ten fastest times run in 2012. He won Olympic gold in London and set a world record 12.80 at the Brussels Diamond League. When he raced he won. When he raced well, he was the fastest man in history.
Was there a sense, given that you were very much aware of the worst possible outcomes of the surgery, that each race could have been your last?
Of course. I knew that going in, that it could potentially be the last race I ever run. That was on my mind, so I was running each round like it was my last.
Even the prelims I ran 13.25 in to a negative 1.5 or something. That’s not slow! That’s like a 13.0 run there. And so every round was pretty much 13.0.
[Merritt's three times in Beijing: 13.25 (-1.2m/s); 13.08 (-0.2); 13.04 (+0.1).]
And coming out of it with a season’s best, did that surprise you or was it like ‘I wanted to do that, mission accomplished’?
Of course. When I went in to worlds I thought I could run under 13. My training at the training camp was so strong that we thought I could hit it. I can summon it for one good rep, but [at the championships] it’s three reps that I have to hit it for, and I have to get to that last one where I have to summon it, and therein lies the problem, because I’m getting to that point very tired and fatigued and I have to hit it again, but lacking the training of previous years.
So it was definitely a challenge. But going into the race I knew I could run under 13, and I just barely missed it. Like, so close! I just didn’t get it.
But I’m happy. I’m happy that I medalled. Like I told the other media people, this medal that I got seems way better than my gold medal from the Olympics, just because of the added pressures and added stress that I had to go through to get it.
I had to work for this incredibly hard. Not that I didn’t work in 2012. I did. But it was just so much easier because I was able to put the training in. We figured out what I needed to get done that year, and I did it. We changed the steps from eight to seven, we did so many different things that had a really good effect on my career for 2012.
But this year it was just so challenging, so tough. I had to be very mentally strong. There was so much that went into this year, and for me to just come out and get that bronze, just to medal, hell just to make the final! I was just happy to be in the final, to be honest. I was like ‘I made the final!’ And I was the only one on there with no kidneys! At the end of the day I was definitely happy about it!
"It’s funny because Sergey had no idea"
Did any of your rivals ever bring it up in the call room or after the races?
Nope! They didn’t even know. It’s funny because Sergey [Shubenkov, who won gold in Beijing] had no idea. We were in the post-race press conference and he was like ‘what, when?!’ And I was like ‘umm, the whole year – I’ve been like this for years now’. And he was like ‘are you serious?! I didn’t even know that, that’s impossible! How are you even running?’ I was like ‘I don’t know!’ He had no idea!
I bet that changed how he felt about his medal.
Probably!! I mean, I don’t know... I didn’t want to make any excuses when I got on that line. I got on that line and I was ready to go. Despite the fact that I needed a kidney, I was ready to run.
"Once I cleared the French hurdlers I thought I was winning"
How much of a frustration is it, particularly given what you achieved in Beijing, that you haven’t had your health the last few years?
Extra frustrating, to be honest. In all honesty – I’m gonna tell you something – in all honesty, when I crossed that line I thought I won the race. Sergey and Hansle [Parchment, who won silver] were so far away from me I didn’t even feel them or see them.
So once I cleared the French hurdlers, I thought I was winning the entire race. I was so tunnel vision on my own lane that when I crossed the line I kinda settled in and didn’t try to push for more, I just wanted to be clean. I was like ‘OK I’m in the front, let me just be clean and finish this and I’m here’.
So I cross the line and I leaned, and I look over, and I’m like ‘oh my god Sergey probably beat me – I missed it. I DIDN’T SEE HIM!’ So when I looked over to the right and I saw he was there, I was like ‘OK I got second, that’s fine’. And then when Hansle’s lane came up before mine I was like ‘what?!’.
There was so much emotion that went into me when I crossed that line. When I saw the board and saw that Sergey had won, and then saw that I didn’t even get second I was like ‘oooh my God! I didn’t medal!’ And then my name came up and I was like ‘aaoaoh! I medalled! I didn’t disbelieve!’
It was like ‘OK I won. OK I didn’t win I’m second. OH MY GOD I DIDN’T EVEN MEDAL. OK I’m third!’ That’s what I felt on the line. It was terrible, it was the worst. I was like ‘don’t scare me like that! God why are you playing with my emotions right now?’ It was really crazy.
A genuine rollercoaster!
Yes! As if the year hasn’t been a rollercoaster enough!
How much of a responsibility do you feel about being open about the process that you’re going through in terms of being an inspiration to others?
That’s exactly one of the reasons why I decided to go public with the information. A lot of people in life have problems, they have kidney disease, they have leukemia, they have breast cancer – you never know what athletes are going through at the end of the day. For people to see us in this vulnerable state, it lets them know that we’re just like them. We are not superhuman people.
To read the full feature, read the November edition of Forever Sports, which is available on UK newstands now.