By Pat Graham
AP Sports Writer
EUGENE, Ore. — Hurdler Aries Merritt captured a bronze medal at worlds last August with his kidneys operating at barely 10 percent. No wonder he’s beaming at the prospect of competing at full health again.
The chance to defend his Olympic title in the 110-meter hurdles in Rio is a very real possibility. All that’s standing in his way is a top-three finish at U.S. Track and Field Trials this weekend.
Doctors didn’t think Merritt would be ready in time after receiving a new kidney from his sister 10 months ago. They grew even less optimistic when he developed complications that resulted in another surgery — this one to place the kidney deeper into his abdomen.
What the doctors didn’t factor in was Merritt’s passion for this sport, and his desire for an Olympic repeat.
“If I was to win, it would be ugly — I’d be on the track crying somewhere, because of all the pain, all the suffering, all the depression I went through to get to this point,” said the 30-year-old Merritt, who’s the world record holder in the hurdles.
He heads into Friday’s first round of Olympic trials in good shape. But he’s not exactly race sharp. He suffered a groin injury recently that curtailed his training. He’s only raced a handful of times heading into trials.
“It’s going to take focus. It’s going to take determination and grit,” the 2012 Olympic gold medalist said.
Nobody would question him in either of those categories.
Merritt kept his ailment secret until just before worlds last August: He was suffering from a rare genetic disorder that was diagnosed in 2013. For years, it turns out, his kidneys had been faltering, to the point where he ran the final at worlds on Aug. 28 at about eight pounds under his normal weight and with his kidneys barely functioning.
In the final, he wound up third, just 0.01 seconds behind Hansle Parchment of Jamaica for second. Sergey Shubenkov of Russia captured gold. He called it an even more fulfilling medal than his Olympic gold.
A few days later he flew home to Phoenix and was on the operating table. His sister, LaToya Hubbard, is a big part of this, too — donating one of her kidneys.
“One thing about Aries, when he puts his mind to it, he can do anything,” said his sister, who will be at the trials. “He’s determined to go back and regain his title so that when he leaves the sport, it’s his.”
Still, it was a long road to recovery.
“After surgery, my belly button was literally to the far right of my stomach. It wasn’t in the right spot,” Merritt said. “It’s a year before everything settles in its normal place.”
As he dealt with his failing kidneys, there were some bleak days for Merritt, like when doctors said he might not run again.
“Elite athletes don’t usually go through kidney transplants,” Merritt said. “(Doctors) deal with regular people. I’m not saying I’m not regular. I’m above the average on a fitness level. They’re just giving me the textbook advice they’d give anyone else, not knowing what I can or my physical limits.”
For a while, it hurt to hurdle. His trail leg kept hitting him in the side of the incision.
“I couldn’t do (indoors) because it was too painful at the time,” Merritt explained. “My body wasn’t ready to hit that part of my scar repeatedly. My body is used to my trail leg. Everything should be fine.”
Maybe so, but then there’s this — concern over the mosquito-borne Zika virus should he be on the team for Rio. He’s more susceptible to infection.
“If I make it, I’m going,” Merritt said. “It’s really important to live that Olympic dream and try to achieve that Olympic goal of trying to win that gold medal and showing everyone around the world your story and your struggle.”
A few other things to watch out for Friday at trials:
JAGER-MASTER: Four-time national champion Evan Jager is a heavy favorite in the final of the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He won his first-round heat.
HURDLES: Brianna Rollins had the fastest time in the prelims of the 100-meter hurdles, just ahead of Keni Harrison, the hurdler who broke Rollins’ American record in May.
SUHR THING: Defending Olympic champion Jenn Suhr and the rest of the pole vaulters begin qualifying. The 34-year-old is the big favorite among a youthful group that includes Sandi Morris, who turns 24 on Friday, and 19-year Alexis Weeks, who won an NCAA title for Arkansas at Hayward Field in June.
LET’S DISCUS: Mason Finley finished with the top throw in qualifying. Don’t discount Lance Brooks, the 2012 Olympian who works construction to earn extra money for training.
SPRINT SERVICE: LaShawn Merritt continues his quest to make the Rio team in the 200 with a semifinal heat. He’s already qualified in the 400. Not to be outdone, 400-meter trials champ Allyson Felix starts qualifying in the 200.