Months after kidney transplant, top hurdler Aries Merritt chasing Rio berth
EUGENE, Ore. — Last summer on the night of Aug. 28 at the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing, Aries Merritt crouched into a set of starting blocks anchored to the ground in lane three and prepared to run the final of the 110-meter hurdles at the biennial world championships of track and field. The 30-year-old had won the gold medal in this event at the 2012 London Olympics and 30 days later, had broken the world record with a time of 12.80 seconds at a meet in Brussels, .07 seconds better than Cuban Dayron Robles’s four-year-old record—a seismic drop in an event where record progression usually occurs in much smaller increments. Built like a baby deer and with an impish smile that never wanes, Merritt did not resemble his athletic peers, but he was by definition their superior. Yet on this night, three years later, he faced an uncertain and frightening future.
Behind him in that moment were nearly two years spent fighting a rare kidney disease with a long name reduced to an acronym, a disease that offered him scant possibility of regaining his health. Behind him was a period of recovery and hope, followed by a relapse that left him just two life-altering options: The prison of kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant. Through it all, he tried to take refuge in his sport, 13-odd seconds of normalcy in a swirl of fear.
Ahead of him in that moment were 10 hurdles spread over 110 meters (slightly more than 120 yards). Each was 42 inches high with the first 45 feet from the starting line, the others 30 feet apart and the last 46 feet from the finish. Ahead of him, three days after the race, was a 5 a.m. appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he would be prepped for a surgical procedure in a which a single kidney from his older sister, LaToya, would be transplanted into his belly and save his life and career. Or not.
“I thought it was going to be my last race,” says Merritt. “I didn’t think I was going to run, ever again.” His kidney function was at approximately 15% that night, his joints bloated by edema, six pounds of excess fluid. His diet, he said, only half-jokingly, had been, “Lettuce, basically.” That and two gallons of water. He was in no condition to stand in line at Starbucks, never mind running a championship race over barriers the size of a first-grader. He prowled the warm-up track in advance of the race, gutted, quaffing five-hour energy shots and getting no response. His coach looked, Andreas Behm, looked at him as they walked into the stadium and Merritt shook his head. At least I did my best, he thought.
Merritt ran the race of his life that night in China. He still doesn’t know how. Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the event who is now retired, introduced the participants at the start of the race. After, when he told the crowd about Merritt’s illness and what lay ahead, the fans roared. Merritt drew energy from that moment. A poor start led to technical perfection. Three steps between each of the hurdles, as evermore. Merritt is not powerful, like countryman David Oliver, but he has a feathery quickness between the barriers. He leaned at the finish, third behind Sergey Shubenkov of Russia and Hansle Parchment of Jamaica, winner of the bronze medal. Merritt’s time of 13.04 was the fastest time he had run since his world record nearly three years earlier.
Dr. Leslie Thomas, a nephrologist at the Mayo Clinic, has been Merritt’s primary specialist since the fall of 2013, and has borne witness to each of Merritt’s highs and lows. “I have to go back to last year at those world championships,” says Thomas. “He had almost no kidney function, terribly anemic, running against the Chinese fog or smog, and he came in third! Don’t you think that’s amazing? I mean, that’s, like, crazy.”
When the race was over and all the emotional interviews were finished, Merritt went back to his hotel room. He would fly the next day back to Phoenix, “terrified,” of the transplant surgery ahead. He says he fell onto the bed, utterly spent. “I was like, `Thank you god, you pulled it off,”’ says Merritt. “Now I can not run again, because I did something huge. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to run again, really. And I said okay, I’m okay with that.”
It is a warm summer night in Eugene, a little past 9 p.m. and just now getting fully dark. Merritt is sitting in a hotel lobby, wearing a dark grey t-shirt on top of black sweats, legs all the way up to here, until at last his waist appears, just below his armpit. It is the perfect hurdler’s body. He is speaking with two reporters while his agent, Mark Wetmore, makes a Chipotle run for him. He begins the pursuit of his second Olympic team and defense of his gold medal Friday afternoon in the first round of the hurdles. He has not yet been sharp this season, and is lightly raced because the kidney transplant surgery (and a second surgery) delayed the start of serious training.
There is a thick, seven-inch long, backward J-shaped scar on the right side of Merritt’s abdomen, dropping from just below his sternum and then curling toward the middle of his belly. Underneath the scar is the kidney that LaToya gave him in the September 1 surgery, and which was moved deeper into his body cavity—shoved inside like stuffing in a Pooh bear—seven weeks later. Every time Merritt clears a hurdle he is reminded of the work done, as his trail (right) leg snaps forward and his thigh bangs against the wounded tissue on his right side. But it’s getting better. “It’s a numbing, tugging sensation,” says Merritt. “It’s discomfort. It does not feel good.” But it was sharp pain, previously. He will hit himself in the kidney 30 times in three rounds here. “It’s a lot,” he says.
Because of the two surgeries and the late start to training (January, instead of October), Merritt has run only four races. He tweaked his groin in the May 28 Prefontaine Classic, but made a visit to German Dr. Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt, the controversial healer who seems to rescue an injured Usain Bolt most years (and who Bolt is visiting right now). “I’ve never gone into a national championship with so few races,” Merritt says. “For what it’s worth, I’ve been training well.”
He has told his story of his illness, battle and recovery many times since last fall, yet here it spills out with surprising zeal, a combination of clinical precision and cheerful bemusement, almost as if it happened to someone else. (Until he shows the scar).
It all began in the autumn of 2013, a year after the Olympics and world record, and shortly after Merritt moved with his coach from College Station, Texas to Phoenix. Frustrated by weakness that had diminished his performances through the summer (just two races faster than 13.20 and a sixth-place finish at the worlds in Moscow), his joints swollen and unable to keep food in his body for more than a short time, Merritt went to the emergency room at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. Tests were performed and the next morning he awakened to find five doctors standing over his bed. “I’m like, ‘Okay, is this House?”’ says Merritt.
It was not a television show. It was very real team of five doctors who had reviewed Merritt’s tests. The leader was Thomas, who explained—very clinically, as Merritt recalls—that Merritt was suffering from the collapsing form of Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), the most stubborn form of a rare kidney disease. His kidney function was less than 20%. His prognosis was poor.
“There was probably an 80 or 90% chance that he wasn’t going to have any meaningful renal recovery,” Thomas said Tuesday night in a conference call interview with reporters from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. “Even with the best of treatment, was he going to be able to avoid kidney failure completely? His kidney function had been checked several months earlier and was basically normal, so he had had a pretty rapid loss of kidney function, which is pretty typical for this disease. Jump forward in time, what are the next few months going to bring? Well, if this thing keeps going like it’s going, you’re probably going to have kidney shutdown [and] need dialysis or a transplant to live. The day I met him he was almost there.”
(Merritt recalls that Thomas had told him, “Your kidneys look like death.”)
For 22 months, Merritt tried, with the dogged spirit of an elite athlete, to avoid those outcomes. Doctors had also found a virus—Parvovirus B-19—that might have caused the FSGS and treated it with immunoglobulin therapy (IVIG). That treatment was onerous, a five-hour intravenous drip, four days a week. It had made Merritt so weak that walking three flights of stairs to his apartment exhausted him. “I would walk up a flight, and then take a break,” Merritt says. (This treatment could have been replaced by injections of the banned blood-boosting agent, EPO. Thomas wrote a 34-page plea to the IAAF, track’s international governing body, asking that Merritt be given a temporary use exemption, a TUE, to use the EPO. “We thought we had a pretty good case, with failing kidneys,” says Thomas. The request was denied. “They were like, ‘You get EPO, you won’t be able to run,”’ says Merritt. “We weren’t going that route.” Merritt currently takes three immunosuppressant medications—“for life” he says—associated with his transplant. One of them, the corticosteroid prednisone, requires a TUE, which Merritt has.)
Merritt got better for a while, and then last spring, worse again. The treatments had eventually helped eradicate the virus and his kidney function had improved, only to falter again. He was called back to Phoenix in June 2015, where Thompson had told him that his kidney function had fallen steadily. “It was a very progressive disease,” says Thomas. “I think what we did was get his kidney function back as best we could, but despite our best efforts, it just continued to progress. I think it might have been a case where the initial insult was still present. I think it was pretty badly scarred when he first got the virus.”
Thomas said that collapsing FSGS is, among the worst kidney diseases, “up in the top two or three.” He said that it is more common in the African-American population than Caucasians, but that it accounts for only 10–15% of dialysis cases, a much lower percentage than diabetes or hypertension. Last June he told Merritt that without dialysis or a transplant, he would be in complete kidney failure by March 2016. (There is precedent for his comeback: NBA players Sean Elliott and Alonzo Mourning both had FSGS, received transplants and resumed their careers, Elliott in ’00 and Mourning in ’03).
Merritt went into the doctor’s reception area and called his sister, who still lives in their hometown of Marietta, Ga., outside Atlanta. They had discussed the transplant issues previously. Family members are most likely to be a good match. “[Aries] was like, ‘Toy, are you still serious about giving me that kidney, like you were before?’” Hubbard says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah of course, what are you talking about?’ He gave me the information and gave me the phone number, I called the Mayo Clinic and we went from there.”
Merritt remembers the call this way: “I said, ‘Toy I’m gonna need a transplant. And she said, ‘I’m gonna get tested and see if I’m a match.’ Click.”
Hubbard and Merritt were raised in the same house by a single mother, Linda Hubbard. (Merritt’s father, Archie Merritt, was not present.) Merritt says he thought of his mother when he crossed the line in Beijing. “She did the best she could with what she had,” he says. “In Beijing, I did the best I could with what I had.” LaToya, 38 now, and eight years older than Aries, dealt out regular doses of hard truth in the family home. “She was really mean,” says Aries, a truthful joke. “She was really tough on me as a kid, growing up as an African-American in Atlanta, in the ghetto; well, not in the ghetto, but not in a rich area. It was tough and she made me see things I wouldn’t normally see. She toughened me up for the harsh reality of the world in the USA. I love my sister to death.”
LaToya says, “You just never know about life and what God has in store for you and what cards are dealt. If I could help my brother in any way possible. ... This is a gift I gave.”
(It was in Marietta, as a freshman at Joseph Wheeler High School in 2000, that Merritt was discovered. He was a member of the school’s track team and says that, on a bet, he jumped off two feet over the chain link fence that encircled the track. The coach saw him and immediately moved him from sprints to hurdles. Three years later he won a scholarship to the University of Tennessee and in ’06 won the NCAA title. His first national title wouldn’t come for six more years, the Olympic gold and the world record followed quickly thereafter).
LaToya has told Aries that she will share intimately in any Olympic success this time around. “I’m a part of him,” she says. “We were always part of each other. But he has something that is basically ticking inside of him, that’s helping him. I think he’s got the best kidney in the world.” And if Aries wins? “Aries can have the gold medal,” says LaToya. “I just want part of the victory lap. I don’t want the whole lap. I’ll just take half.”
Last June, after Merritt made the decision to have a transplant and after LaToya signed on, Aries ached to tell the world. But even after finishing third at the U.S. national championships last June, in the qualifying meet for Beijing, LaToya convinced Aries to keep quiet; she was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed to go to China. Merritt told the USA Track and Field medical staff that he was going to have a kidney transplant, but, “I’m fine.” (Not the truth, strictly speaking).
His vow of silence lasted until he started hearing rumors. “Why is Merritt not running to his potential?” says Merritt. “He just broke the world record a few years ago and now he’s running like sh--. Was he on drugs? Once I heard that: ‘He was on drugs.’ No. My name is not going to be trashed. I went public. This is the reason I haven’t been able to do the things I’ve done in the past, because I’ve been in the hospital getting treated for kidney problems.”
Merritt told his story to Jon Mulkeen, a writer for the IAAF. His story was posted on the IAAF website eight days before the Beijing final, ensuring that Merritt would be the story of the meet.
He is the story of this meet, too. And every meet. “It’s pretty amazing,” says Oliver, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and ’13 world champion. “When I first heard about it, it was ‘Oh my god, that’s crazy, and he’s still competing and being strong.’” Thomas watches from afar, a man of medicine inured to pain, suffering and healing. “I just think it’s amazing,” he says. “And in my line of work, I see a lot of amazing things. This one really takes it.”
A year ago, Merritt was prepared to end his career in Beijing. Now he is both thankful and greedy for more. “Now I’m not prepared for these Olympic Trials to be my last race of the season,” he says. “I need to get on this team. I can iron things out after the Trials. I just need time. That’s the most precious thing.”