Aries Merritt has an Olympic story like no other.
His debut at the London Games in 2012 earned him a gold medal, a World Indoor title and the world record for the 110 meter hurdles. After an amazing introduction to the Olympics, Merritt was stunned to find out that he was in immediate need of a kidney transplant and may face the realization that he may never step foot on a track again.
Despite the odds, he triumphed to make a comeback that proves the athlete in him is ready for another gold medal.
Merritt discusses getting back to track, the overwhelming feeling of standing at Olympic ceremonies and what it means to represent Team USA during an interview with NBC.
NBC: Tell me first about your experience in London.
Merritt: London was my first Olympic games, so my experience was phenomenal. I loved the opening ceremonies, even though you had to stand up for eight to nine hours watching the opening ceremonies. [chuckle] It’s really difficult or strange because you have to walk in order of country and USA is one of the last countries to enter because of the ‘u’ in the United States. I wanted to experience the full Olympic experience since it was my first. Being able to go and watch other events outside of my own was really rewarding because I’ve been such a fan of the Olympic Games and other Olympic sports, not just my own. Being able to see everyone else who has put in the same amount of work in different areas was really satisfying.
NBC: Now going to Rio are you going to keep the same plan to stand eight hours if you have to?
Merritt: I am. I’m always the second week so I can recover from that easily [laughter]. I’m going to go to the opening and closing ceremonies because I feel like it’s part of the Olympic experience. How many times do you get to go to the Olympic Games and compete? I mean it’s very rare and there’s a very small window in which you get to do that.
NBC: What’s it like to put on that uniform?
Merritt: [laughter] It’s always a really good feeling representing Team USA. It’s one of those things that give you that extra “oomph” when you know you’re representing your country. I’m running Nike and I put on that uniform all the time, so it’s like going to work. But when you put on that Team USA, it’s a completely different feel.
NBC: Your story is not like very many stories. Do you think you would’ve noticed the health issues had you not already been an elite athlete and so in tune with your body?
Merritt: At the rate in which my body declined from the kidney failure, I didn’t know I had kidney failure until it got to its worst stage because I was in such great shape. I knew something was wrong and we chopped it up to me not having enough training that year because I was in amazing shape leading up to that in 2012. I had a lot of residual coming off the previous year and going into 2013. I pulled my hamstring three times, and missed three and half, four months training at World Championship. [People said] ‘That’s why you didn’t get it done’, but something in my heart told me that wasn’t the case. I was like “Something is not right. I’m not able to finish my race.” It just doesn’t go away.
That’s my competitive nature alone that carries me to the line. Even if I don’t win, my performance should’ve been much faster, so I knew something was wrong. Being an athlete definitely helped me know that something was wrong. But when I did check into the Mayo Clinic, I knew something was definitely wrong because I had a stomach ache for weeks and your stomach just doesn’t hurt for weeks. I was sleeping a lot and my limbs started to swell, so when you notice change in your body and you know something is not right. My legs never looked like that [chuckle].
NBC: What was your thought? Did they have the chance to explain to you that this is really a rare disorder; this is going to be a transplant? How’d you take that news?
Merritt: Well when I was first diagnosed they told me that I was going to need to start dialysis immediately. And I was like “What’s that?” because I had no idea what dialysis was. I heard of people being on dialysis and I was like “Oh, it’s just a little procedure,” but dialysis is a very rigorous and strenuous procedure. It’s horrible. They said “We’re going to need to start you. Your kidney functions are under 15%.”
When I was first diagnosed it was really, really bad. When he told me that my career was pretty much over, it was really hard to come to grips with me not being able to run again. Obviously, I went through the multiple stages of denial and I just couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be able to compete.
By the grace of God, somehow I was able to recover from whatever that was that was going on and my kidney function started to heal on its own and things started to turn around. But the scarring was so detrimental to my kidney that it pretty much ruined the kidney function completely. I had to get a kidney transplant two years after that because the kidneys function was so scarred, so the filtration was botched.
NBC: Tell me the conversation with your sister before.
Merritt: I called my sister as soon as I knew I needed the transplant. He said “you’re going to need a transplant.” And I was like “well, am I able to push the transplant back 2017, after Rio maybe?” They were like “Well you really can’t because of the rate at which your kidneys are failing. You’re going to need a transplant. In March your kidney are not going to be functioning at all and you will be on dialysis. Like seriously this time. So you’re going to need to get a transplant before then.”
When they told me I needed a transplant it was like, “Okay, how quick can we get it done?” Those telling me that I couldn’t run anymore already felt like nothing could be worse than that. I was ready to get it done and get it over with so I could start back training. There was no way I was going to get the transplant in March because then I would’ve missed Rio for sure. He was like “We can try to expedite the process and get you transplanted as soon as possible, but you’re going to need a match. So you’re going to need to start asking your family, asking your friends if they want to donate and it’s going to be hard because a lot of them are probably not going to donate.”
You would be surprised the amount of people that said they would be happy to donate to me and it was really heartwarming.
NBC: Your sister donates a kidney. Do you feel like she is with you all the time? Like the connection is stronger than it has ever been?
Merritt: Me and my sister have always had a really strong relationship, so I don’t feel like it is any stronger than it has been before. We’re best friends, so we’ll ride or die for each other. If I needed a heart transplant and she could give me her heart, she would. If I needed a brain transplant, she would give me her brain. That’s the kind of relationship we have and when I told her that I needed to have a kidney transplant, the first thing she said was that, “I’m going to get tested to see if we can be a match.”
Just like that, she went, got tested and everything was clean. When you go through a kidney transplant process, in order for you to donate a kidney you have to have the cleanest bill of health ever. Whenever you get someone else’s organs, whatever diseases or disorders they have or could have, could be transferred to you. You have to make sure it’s the most intensive physical you’ve ever experienced and they have to make sure that person is spotless before they give you that kidney. Obviously, she was. She had just had a baby a year before she gave me the kidney and she was still on her prenatal, so her bill of health was cleaner than mine.
Obviously she had two working kidneys and I was under 20 percent kidney function [laughter]. Everything was all systems go there. Then there was the blood matching and everything seemed to work out for the best.
NBC: You’re headed to the Olympics. You’ve got great chance and you’re the reigning Gold medalist. [Doctors are] not going to see that many opportunities to look at an athlete like that recover. You’re kind of like a walking petri dish for them right.
Merritt: Yeah, that is true. They’ve never experienced any transplant specimen [laughter] – because that’s what I am – like myself. And they told me that when they cut me open they were like “Oh my god! There’s so much muscle right here!” Normally the people they are cutting into are obese, they’re a lot heavier, they have a lot more fat than I have and when I went into surgery, I had just come off World Championship, so I was in really good shape. I was incredibly lean when they cut me open, so they tried not to cut so much of the muscle and spare me because they knew I was going to be coming back. It’s been a challenge for them whereas a normal patient would take six to eight weeks; I’ve taken four to six weeks to heal.
They’re still giving me restrictions as if I’m one of those patients, but I’m ready! But I have to wait until the doctors say everything is okay before I full board training. Right now, I’m just doing bike workouts [chuckles].
NBC: Your training program isn’t going to look like anybody else’s, tell me how you feel about it.
Merritt: I feel that my training going forward this year will be a little different. As you get older as an athlete, your body remembers what it needs to do quicker than it did before. I’m not young. I don’t need to train as much as I did in the past when I was still trying to find myself. I pretty much figured out the program and strategy that works for me and that’s what we’re going to build on. We’re going to start when we start and we’re going to build, build and build. Then when it’s time to compete, we’re going to start tapering and moving things around a bit.
NBC: How does your mind kind of help you work through those issues?
Merritt: I was taught when I was first trained to be very independent. Because of that nature of being independent, I am able to adapt to different situations very quickly as opposed to someone who is very dependent; let’s say on their coach or family or whatever the case may be. I’m so independent that I don’t need to have all this stuff going on and so that kind of worked out in my favor.
I feel like training moving forward is going to be great because now I have a working kidney. I have kidney function. I’m able to eat protein properly. I’m able to have potassium, magnesium and all that great stuff athletes need to perform [laughter]. I feel like after I recovered and the training moves in the direction that it’s going to move, that everything will work itself out and I can potentially be back on that podium in Rio.
NBC: Are you going to live in the Olympic Village and do everything you did before?
Merritt: Exactly! I’m going to live in the Olympic Village with Team USA. I’m going to continue to do the exact same thing pretty much. I’m going to go into the Olympic Games with a carefree attitude because if you make the Olympic team as an American, you’re pretty much a shoo-in for a medal [laughter]. Also, it’s so difficult in my event and America has pretty much dominated the hurdles in previous Olympic Games for decades. Making the USA team is by far harder than the Olympic Games, so once I get to the Olympic Games it’ll be more carefree, stress-free; and enjoyable. I’ll go to the opening ceremony, closing ceremony, see other events to take my mind off of track and then when it’s my turn to compete, then I’ll focus one round at a time.
NBC: Who are you like I just saw [blank] walking around the Olympic Village?
Merritt: I’m not really star struck. It’s funny because when you go to the Olympic Games and Team USA basketball comes in the cafeteria, every country on the planet runs to the front of the cafeteria so they can see LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or whoever is the basketball star at the time that’s on the team. I’m the type of person that if I see you I’m like “okay” [laughter].
Follow updates with Aries Merritt on Twitter @amhurdlestar