And he’ll never forget where his storied career got its start — the track inside Wheeler’s Corky Kell Stadium.
In looking back upon his memorable high school experience, which culminated in a 2003 Class AAAAA state championship, it was Merritt who took the initiative to visit his high school and speak to the student body. The administration made it happen, and Merritt spoke about his Olympic experience during a pep rally Friday at Doug Lipscomb Gymnasium.
“He called our principal out of the kindness of his heart to give back to the school and to the community, and we were happy to oblige,” Wheeler athletic director Robert Horn said. “You look at the history this guy set in a two-month period, and with his roots in Marietta, it was exciting for him to come back and share his experience.”
Merritt is actually the second Wheeler athlete to win a gold medal, joining his former high school teammate, Reggie Witherspoon, who won gold as part of the U.S. 1,600 relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Many may wonder how different Merritt’s career would be had former Wheeler track and field coach Chad Walker not seen the then-freshman, just for kicks, leaping over the short fence surrounding the track.
In fact, the fence he cleared was higher than the typical 42-inch hurdles he has to leap.
From that point, Merritt was no longer just a sprinter.
When asked about his very first race as a hurdler, he said it was “terrible.”
“I was trying to find myself and get used to the event,” Merritt said. “I taught myself technique and taught myself what I needed to do so that I could be good since I was a perfectionist. I wanted to make it right as quick as possible. I worked at it and worked at it and eventually became the person I am today.”
On Friday, Merritt got to tell his Olympic story.
With family members joining former teammates and coaches watching at a sports bar in east Cobb, Merritt won gold in the hurdles by a then-personal best of 12.92 seconds.
Things only got better for Merritt after that. He set a new personal record — the one the world will is currently remembering — of 12.80 seconds at a Sept. 7 meet in Belgium.
“When I first came over here to help coach, he was a sophomore, and you would never think at that time that someone would actually make it to the Olympics and win a gold medal and become a world record-holder,” current Wheeler track coach Greg Mitchell said. “He had good talent, but you never think on that level. We’re just really proud of him. He’s the second Wheeler Wildcat to win a gold medal, which separates us from anybody in the whole county.”
Merritt also shared the story about his deciding to hurdle the fence with Walker noticing, and how he seriously applied himself his junior and senior year, when he learned he was good enough to run in college. Merritt devoted himself to his studies, raising his grades significantly before graduating with a 3.8 GPA.
Merritt joined with Witherspoon to lead Wheeler to a state title in 2003 by winning an individual crown in the 110 hurdles and taking second in the 300 hurdles.
He then shifted his career to Tennessee and ultimately won all his events as a junior with the Volunteers in 2006. He won an NCAA outdoor championship and broke Willie Gault’s Tennessee record with a time of 13.21.
Merritt went on to turn professional after that season, beginning the long road to where he is today.
The rest is history.