Ask Aries Merritt to recite a race, and he’ll give specifics. Ask him to call back a season, and he can list his performances in sequential order — including locations and some of his competitors' times.
“I have an elephant memory,” Merritt said. “I’m so particular about time and numbers. It’s our livelihood.”
Merritt’s memory helps him remember doctor’s appointments and track meets alike. It also allows him to recollect exactly how his body feels during the good races and the bad ones throughout his 15 years of hurdling at an elite level.
So when he says his body feels better than it has since 2013, the statement carries weight.
It was 2013 when Merritt — just one season removed from a historically great season in the 110 hurdles — began to feel symptoms of kidney failure. At the end of his competition season, his energy levels were low, and he felt sick often. The condition got worse. He ran with partially functioning kidneys in 2014 and 2015, but eventually had to have the failing kidney replaced.
The operation happened just four days after he earned the bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships. The track world marveled at Merritt’s ability to compete with kidneys that were functioning at less than 20 percent. Merritt received the kidney from his sister, and the procedure was a success.
Then, with Olympic Trials just nine months away, he set off on his comeback.
"I have an elephant memory."
Merritt’s quest to make the team became one of the most prominent stories of the summer. His body was still recovering (he could feel the new kidney every time he used his trail leg) and he was competing in one of the deepest events in the United States. In Eugene, Merritt finished fourth — .01 seconds out of a qualifying spot.
“Because it’s the Olympics, you’re wanting to make that team no matter what you’ve been through,” Merritt said. “The chips were stacked against me and I almost pulled off the impossible.”
Finally 2016 wrapped up. With the Olympic spotlight off, the attention around Merritt’s story died down. He took off three months during the 2016 season to recover. He had to. The combination of two surgeries — one for the kidney replacement, and another for a hematoma that developed shortly after he received his new kidney — rushed preparations for an Olympic team, and a still-recovering body, left him exhausted. But the extra time off worked. Merritt made his way back on to the U.S. team last year and finished fifth at the world championships.
Still, the preparation wasn’t ideal.
In 2018, he gets a clean reset: no late start to the season and the best his body has felt in five years.
“Every year I knew I’d get better post-surgery," Merritt said. "Last year, there was slight discomfort. This year, the scar tissue is pretty much all gone. The scar tissue (from the transplant) is to a point where I’m actually able to move my trail leg properly.”
This year, he can do more intense workouts in the weight room and he doesn’t have the same dietary restrictions he’s had in the past. Namely, he can take in more protein — something he was reluctant to do in previous years because of the stress it puts on his kidney. His visits to the doctor are now monthly instead of once every three days.
He remembers all the procedures and everything he’s asked to take because of that "elephant" memory, but also because of his need to a have a strict accounting for USADA. Those monthly trips to the doctor will continue for the rest of his life, as will his need to take the immunosuppressant Prograf. But despite all the tumult, he’s back where he was five years ago.
“The only thing that’s different is my age," Merritt said. "I’m a much older athlete, more seasoned. Being 32 years old, it’s not like it was when I was 23 years old.”
As he kicks off 2018 with his appearance Saturday at the UW Indoor Open, Merritt thinks he can get back under 13 seconds.
Sub 13-second clockings in the 110m hurdles have been rare as of late. In the past two years, only Omar McLeod of Jamaica has broken 13 seconds. The Jamaican did it once in 2016 and twice in 2017. In 2012, Merritt ran under 13 seconds on 10 occasions, including his world record of 12.80 that he set a month after winning gold in London.
“It was a necessity for me to run 12.9 (in 2012)," he said. "So I was literally running 12.9 every time I stepped on the track because I had to, to win. The competition was a lot more fierce I would say in those years. There were a lot of people who were more seasoned and they understood the event and the rhythm of what it took to run those times. I think the same thing will happen in the future where you’ll see athletes grow in age and you’ll see the performances start to cluster and you’ll see the times start to trend in that way.”
“The chips were stacked against me and I almost pulled off the impossible.”
The slower times give an opening for Merritt to once again contend for gold indoors and out. If he qualifies for the U.S. team, he plans to compete at the world indoor championships in Birmingham, England. In 2012, he won the world indoor championship — foreshadowing what was to come later that summer.
Merritt hopes to rekindle the magic from that year.
"My health is back to where it needs to be," he said. "Training is going phenomenal. I’m way ahead of where I was last year."
On Saturday in Seattle he's got a chance to prove it.