EUGENE, Ore. — Aries Merritt said his doctors are “very, very concerned” and “troubled” if he goes to Rio after a September kidney transplant, because he is more susceptible to infections, including the Zika virus, than the normal person.
“They’ve asked me many times, have you considered not going,” he said Wednesday. “I’m like, that’s not an option.”
Merritt also takes a risk every time he takes on a hurdle in competition. Should he crash and hit somebody, or some thing, it could damage the kidney.
“If I was playing football, I wouldn’t be able to play football anymore,” Merritt said. “I I got hit one time [playing football], I’d lose a kidney.”
Merritt races at the Olympic Trials on Friday and Saturday at Hayward Field, where he must finish in the top three to defend his Olympic 110m hurdles title in Rio.
He is ranked No. 3 in the U.S. this year, making him a contender, arguably a favorite to make the team, but not necessarily to win the event.
In a way, Merritt is reminded of his kidney transplant every time he clears a hurdle. The thigh of his right trail leg rises toward his lower abdomen, near the scar from his Sept. 1 procedure.
“I do feel the incisional area,” Merritt said, adding that he also feels kidney spasms outside of races, as surrounding muscles continue to move back into place. “There has been discomfort.”
Yet Merritt says he’s healthy and training just as he was in 2012, except for two setbacks in the 10 months since receiving a kidney from older sister LaToya Hubbard. Doctors told him then he should wait until 2017 to compete again.
Merritt had none of it with an Olympic year coming up. About six weeks after the transplant he jogged, only to find out he needed a follow-up, mid-October surgery due to a hematoma that had developed that was crushing the kidney.
He returned to full training in January and in the spring raced in three meets, each occasion running faster than the previous. He reached 13.24 seconds on May 18, ranking him second among Americans for the year at that point (but still well off his 12.80 world record one month after the London Olympics).
Merritt then raced at the Prefontaine Classic here in Eugene on May 28 and finished fourth in 13.51 seconds. He hobbled over the final six hurdles after straining a groin on hurdle four (video here). It was unrelated to his kidneys (the non-functioning ones were not removed in the transplant surgery).
Merritt said it took two to three weeks to return from that injury. He hasn’t raced since May 28, but Merritt doesn’t look at what’s happened in the last 10 months as a disadvantage heading into his first-round heat at Trials on Friday afternoon.
“If I step on the line, I’m as vulnerable as they are,” he said. “The 10 barriers are your biggest enemies, not the people you’re competing against.”
Yet there’s no question the Rio favorite is Jamaican Omar McLeod, who owns the five fastest times in the world this year with a best of 12.98. The Merritt of four years ago was easily capable of beating that.
At the 2015 World Championships, Merritt took bronze in 13.04 seconds (McLeod was sixth). He had the kidney transplant four days later.
Merritt used the word “ugly” to describe what it will be like if he gets to Rio and becomes the first man to repeat as Olympic 110m hurdles champion since Roger Kingdom in 1988.
“I’ll be on the track crying somewhere,” Merritt said, “because of all the pain, all the suffering and all the depression I went through to get to this point.”Follow @nzaccardi