Aries Merritt wasn’t sure he’d wake up after kidney transplant surgery.
“You know they give you all the disclaimers,” Merritt said.
All he knew for certain was that his kidneys were being attacked by a genetic disorder inherited from his father’s side of the family. It made no difference that he was an Olympic champion and world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles.
“With my luck, I might just die,” Merritt remembered thinking.
Then he woke up. “I was like ‘OK, when can I start back training?’” he said. “That was the first thing I thought because Rio was coming up.”
And Merritt is determined to defend his Olympic title at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, this time carrying his big sister with him in his body as well as in his heart.
LaToya Hubbard donated the kidney that has allowed Merritt, 30, to once again compete on an international stage.
“Oh, I thank her all the time,” Merritt said with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t have to say anything to her. I needed something and she pretty much gave it to me.
“That’s the kind of bond we have.”
Almost seven months to the day after his Sept. 1 surgery, Merritt opened his outdoor season at the Drake Relays last Saturday, placing fifth with a time of 13.61 seconds. He will race the first Diamond League meet on Friday in Doha, Qatar, where he is one of the headliners not only for his achievements on the track, but also for his remarkable story of recovery and perseverance.
“I feel empowered now,” Merritt said. “I feel ready to compete and ready to show the world what I can really do now that I have a real body again.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a dream or feel that I could defend my title. I think as athletes we always strive to be great and we strive to do amazing things and this is no different. It’ll be amazing if I was able to come off the surgery and win gold again.”
Merritt had a dream season in 2012, winning the gold medal in London and then smashing the world record with a time of 12.80 seconds, slicing .07 off the previous mark to equal the biggest drop in 31 years.
But everything soured in 2013. Merritt couldn’t match his previous form and he felt weak and sick following the 2013 world championships in Moscow, where he placed fifth.
A couple of months later, Merritt went to a hospital in Phoenix and was diagnosed with kidney disease. He was also suffering from parvovirus B16, which attacked his kidneys and bone marrow — a “double whammy,” he called it. Merritt spent eight months in the hospital, keeping his condition a secret from the track and field world.
“They said I couldn’t run again,” he said, “and then I was depressed, I was mad, I was angry. I was a really mean person because it was almost like the joy had been snatched from me.”
Merritt tried to figure out what he was going to do with his life if he couldn’t run again. He eventually recovered enough to return to track and field. But all was not well.
“The training definitely accelerated the destruction of my kidneys,” Merritt said. “Had I not been a world-class athlete, I probably could have lived a normal life. Because the kidneys didn’t suffer the damage until after I started training really hard for world champs.”
And while the condition wouldn’t have been fatal, Merritt said, “It’s just to do what I do, I can’t be suffering from kidney disorder.”
When doctors told him last summer he needed a transplant, LaToya was the first person Merritt called. As fast as Merritt is out of the blocks, LaToya, his only sibling, was even faster in deciding to help him get back on his feet.
“I told her, ‘Hey Toy, I just got really bad news. I’m going to have to get a transplant,’” Merritt said, “and the first thing she said was, ‘I need to go and see if I’m a match. I’ll call you back.’ Click.”
“And so that was it.”
They were a match. Merritt did have backups, though, just in case. His massage therapist from London, his coach and athletes who trained with him and shared the same blood type offered their kidneys.
Mitch Watt, the Olympic silver medalist in the long jump from Australia, told Merritt, “I would gladly give you my kidney if you realllllllllly needed it and you couldn’t find anyone else.”
Merritt joked back, “I hope I get yours, you’re a medalist already!” but LaToya was always the first and best choice.
Though she is eight years older, they were close growing up. “She did what sisters are supposed to do,” Merritt said. “She made me tougher because she pestered me a lot growing up as a kid.”
When doctors urged them to pick a date for the surgery as soon as possible, Merritt balked. He had the 2015 world championships coming up in a month. The doctors relented, saying he could have the surgery after he raced. He just had to come home immediately.
While he was in Beijing, Merritt finally disclosed his condition to the public in an interview posted on the IAAF website. He revealed that he would be competing with under 20 percent kidney function.
“I achieved a bronze medal and no one even thought I would make the final,” Merritt said. “Because once they knew the story, they were like, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to write him off.’ But for me, telling my story was such a huge weight lifted off my shoulders to just be able to express what I’ve been going through over the last couple of years.
“When you don’t have kidneys, you can’t process protein, you can’t process toxins, you can’t have potassium. You can’t have magnesium. You can’t have anything! So I’m eating like a bird trying to compete at a world level. It’s not good!”
In Beijing, though, Merritt didn’t eat like a bird.
“I ate protein, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to,” he said. “But I knew I was having a kidney transplant in a few days, so I was ‘Whatever. I’m just about to eat this protein. I’m about to have this juice.’
“I thought it was the end, my swan song, so I just did everything I could to try to do the best I could with what I had.”
Merritt’s competitors, who had witnessed his decline, were stunned first by the news of his condition, and then by his bronze medal.
“They had no idea at first what was wrong,” Merritt said. “And then when I made the announcement, they were like, ‘Are you serious, you’ve been running like that for that long? How did you do that? How did you medal?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’”
He didn’t have much time to ponder the question. He had to rush back to Phoenix for surgery four days after his race.
As Merritt and his sister sat side by side waiting to be prepped for surgery, LaToya was calm while Aries was “freaking out.”
“I had tears coming down my face,” he said, “and she was just happy-go-lucky, talking with her anesthesiologist and I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. Am I the only one that feels this anxiety that I’m feeling right now, this doubt?’”
LaToya been under the knife before, giving birth to a baby by C-section about a year earlier. Aries hadn’t.
“They were cutting into muscle,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to be able to do abs! How will I lift my knees up? I can’t bring my trail leg through because I need my stomach to be working.’
“And she was all calm, ‘Oh, it will be fine. It’s nothing. It’ll heal up.’”
Merritt’s mother took care of him during his recovery. He couldn’t leave the house, so he played video games, watched TV and basically did nothing. Merritt wasn’t allowed to lift anything over 10 pounds. Despite instructions to take in 4,000 calories a day, he lost his appetite and eight pounds.
About eight weeks after the surgery, Merritt was allowed to resume training. However, he developed a hematoma on his first day back, requiring further surgery. Doctors drained the hematoma, put the kidney in deeper and stitched him back up.
Another eight weeks went by. In mid-December, Merritt approached his first hurdle in months.
“The first time I went over a hurdle it was really scary and it was sloppy,” he said. “It was like a baby deer trying to walk.”
His coach told him, “Well, it’s a start,” but Merritt was upset.
“I’m like, no, this is horrible, because just a few months ago I was one of the best in the world and after surgery, it was like, why are my knees wobbling all over the place? Why can I not pull my trail leg around quick enough? As an athlete, I feel like you want everything right away, but we have to work.”
Merritt knew that thanks to muscle memory, his body would bounce back. There was precedent: NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Sean Elliott came back to basketball after kidney transplants. Every day Merritt saw progress, with less pain and swelling.
“I would say that my speed hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said.
He also proclaimed his fitness better than the two years he struggled with kidney disease.
“I’m definitely back to my old self training-wise,” Merritt said after the Drake Relays.
He has massages to deal with scar tissue and takes medication — all duly listed on anti-doping forms — to ensure his body does not reject the kidney.
“If I was to pull off Olympic gold no less than a year after a surgery — I mean, it’s almost impossible to do what I’m trying to do,” Merritt said, “but I think anything is possible when you put your mind to it. Because look what I achieved at world championships with under 20 percent kidney function.”
Merritt speaks with LaToya every day. While he is an Olympic champion, she is his champion.
“It takes a lot of guts to give someone a body organ,” Merritt said. “She’s an amazing person. I love her and she knows that and we’re pretty much best friends, so it was a really easy decision for her to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you my kidney.’”
So if Merritt wins in Rio in August, will he give LaToya the gold medal?
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I did it. She gave me a kidney. She doesn’t get the medal, but she does get credit.”
Credit: Team USA