It’s safe to say that he had a lot to talk about to his family and friends.
Winning an Olympic gold medal and setting a new world record were primary talking points the 27-year-old track and field superstar, and former Wheeler High School standout, had to discuss with his friends and loved ones.
Merritt’s triumph in the 110-meter hurdles last month at the London Olympics was the crowning achievement of a magical season that included winning the world indoor title in the 60 hurdles in February and claiming a national outdoor title in the 110 hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.
Merritt, however, saved the best for last when he capped off his breakthrough year by setting a new world record in the 110 hurdles with a time of 12.80 seconds on Sept. 7 at a meet in Brussels.
Merritt came home last Friday for a brief respite, after a visit to the White House with a group of fellow Olympians and Paralympians, and he left town on Tuesday. It was the first time Merritt had been back in east Cobb as an Olympic gold medalist, making it a special visit for him.
“It feels good to come home as Olympic champion — just to see my family and friends who I haven’t seen in such a long time,” Merritt said. “You know, having a home-cooked meal is pretty good, because I haven’t had one of those in God knows how long. I like to come home, and now that I’m a gold medalist, people are inspired and are honored to be in my presence, so all of this is fun, I guess.”
With his world record, world indoor title and national outdoor crown, as well as his gold medal, Merritt established himself among the elite of track and field in 2012.
“I don’t feel any different,” he said. “I still feel like the same old Aries. I worked really hard this year. When you work hard and put yourself on the line for something, you achieve certain things. I achieved everything that I worked to achieve this year. I achieved the world indoor championship. I achieved Olympic gold and I achieved the world record. So, everything I wanted to do, I did it.”
Since his triumph in London, Merritt competed in IAAF Diamond League meets in Monaco, England and Germany, as well as the season-ending meet in Belgium, where he set the world record.
Competing as an Olympic champion was a different experience for Merritt.
“It’s been kind of different,” he said. “When I’m introduced before a race, I’m introduced as ‘2012 Olympic champion,’ and the crowd goes crazy. That’s different. At all the meets I do now, I do what they call a star’s parade, and that’s when all the Olympic champions that are in the meet come together and they are driven around the track in a luxury vehicle and we wave to the crowd, so I’ve had to do that at every meet. So, that’s different — I’ve never done that before.”
Another post-Olympic highlight for Merritt was his visit to the White House last Friday, when he met with President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“It was definitely an honor to go to the White House,” Merritt said. “I It was an honor to go there and meet them, because I’ve never seen them, and I’ve heard what it was like to meet them, and it was everything that everyone has said. It was a good experience for me.”
As big an accomplishment as winning Olympic gold was, breaking the world record was equally momentous for Merritt.
With his time of 12.80 seconds at the Brussels meet, Merritt shattered the previous world record of 12.87 set by Cuba’s Dayron Robles in 2007.
The record came as a bit of surprise for Merritt, who was simply trying to get under 13 seconds again.
“You don’t try to run a world record — it just kind of happens,” Merritt said. “And, at this point, it was the last race of my season. I wasn’t really looking to break the world record. All I focused on was breaking 13 seconds one last time to cap off a legendary season.”
For Merritt, it also validated his gold medal-winning performance in London in a 110 hurdles race that was missing the injured top contenders — Robles and China’s Liu Xiang.
“It felt really, really good to break that record. It felt better, almost better, than to win Olympic gold,” Merritt said. “That validated the Olympic gold. People could have said, ‘Liu Xiang was hurt, and he didn’t get to run, and Dayron Robles, he pulled up, so he didn’t get to run.’ So, I probably would have had to live with people saying, ‘Well, these people weren’t in the race, or these people were in the race, but they didn’t finish the race. It’s not the same that you won, because they weren’t in the race.’ Now that I have the world record, people can’t really say that anymore, because I’m now the best that ever lived. It’s different.”
With his breakthrough season, Merritt raised himself to a higher level in a somewhat disappointing professional track career that had been marred by injuries up until this year.
In addition to improving his technique on the track — most notably cutting down the number of steps on his approach to the first hurdle from eight to seven — Merritt also dedicated himself to simply taking better care of his body.
“It was time for me to step up to the plate,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to do this all my life. I knew, if I stayed injury-free, I would have a good season. I’m hurting myself, because I’m pulling my hamstring, because I’m not eating right. Or, everything’s wrong. Or, I’m overstepping (in my approach to the hurdles) — that always manages to happen. But, this year, I did everything right. I stayed injury-free. I didn’t get myself hurt. I take care of my body like I take care of my car. Because, my body needs regular maintenance like your car does, and I wasn’t getting that regular maintenance, and now I am. So, it was a whole bunch of things that played in my favor this year, and I was just doing the things that I wasn’t doing in previous years.”
While still basking in the glow of his magical 2012 season, Merritt is already looking ahead to next year.
He’s looking to add an outdoor world championship to his list of accomplishments next August at the 2013 world championships in Moscow.
But, the biggest goal for Merritt is to break the record of 11 consecutive sub-13-second races in the 110 hurdles. That mark is currently held by 1996 Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson, who was the last American gold medalist in that event before Merritt’s victory in London.
While he acknowledged that 2012 will be a hard act to follow, Merritt said he’s looking forward to securing his hold on the top spot in the world in the 110 hurdles.
“The only thing I can work on is setting as many goals as I can,” Merritt said. “The goal I want to achieve next year is to break the sub-13 record, which is held by Allen Johnson. If I can break that, I’ll be happy. And then, after that, I can cement myself in the history books for awhile until someone else does it.
“And then, who’s to say I won’t break my record next year. You never know. I can get stronger, I can get faster. I can get technically better over the hurdles. I can run an even more amazing race than I ran in Brussels. All these things I have to look forward to next year. I’m just staying focused and staying the course.”
It’s been amazing journey to the top of the mountain for Merritt, whose hurdling career began back in 2000, when then-Wheeler track and field coach Chad Walker spotted the young freshman leaping over a fence at Corky Kell Stadium and onto the school’s track and immediately made him a hurdler for the Wildcats.
Merritt won a state title in the 110 hurdles for Wheeler in 2003 — helping lead the Wildcats to their first and only state team title — and he added an NCAA title at Tennessee in ’06.
“You think about the things that you overcome — all the memories that you’ve had in previous years, like the fence that I jumped over. All the way down there by the concession stand — that was the fence that I jumped over, and coach Walker saw me jump the fence, and he said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re going to be the hurdler this year,’ and I was like, ‘OK,’ and all those memories come back.”
It was as he arrived back in the United States from his record-setting performance in Brussels that the magnitude of what Merritt had achieved finally sunk in completely.
“It was funny, because I was on the plane back from Brussels, and I was looking out the window,” Merritt said. “I was landing in the U.S. and I realized, it’s over. It was like a dream. I was like, oh, my God, I did everything that I could imagine in a season and it’s all over now. It’s coming to an end.
“I had a big smile on my face as we landed. It was pretty funny, but I couldn’t believe it was over. I didn’t want it to end, because who’s to say that I’ll have the same kind of year next year. You don’t know. The only thing I can do is to continue to work hard and try.”