Sometimes Less Is More: Aries Merritt Is Effervescent Hurdle Perfectionist, by David Hunter, note by Larry Eder

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Aries Merritt, Colin Jackson, Lamine Diack, Renaldo Nehemiah, Harrison Dillard, photo courtesy of IAAF Communications, Barcelona, November 2012

At the Celebration of the Centenary of the IAAF, one of my favorite memories will be the press conference with some of the world's greatest hurdlers. Aries Merritt, the London gold medalist, and current AR, Colin Jackson, Olympic silver, 1988, former WR holder (1991), and six time WC medalist, Lamine Diack, President of the IAAF, the iconic Renaldo Nehemiah, HS record holder, former WR holder, now athlete manager , and Harrison Dillard, 1948 gold, 100m and 1952 gold, Olympics, in 110m hurdles, were all in Barcelona. The conversation was relaxed, brisk and fascinating. Harrison Dillard, all of 91, had the best comment about Aries Merritt, " Aries will break the World record once again."

That was agreed on by Colin Jackson and Renaldo Nehemiah as well! 

David Hunter caught up with Aries Merritt at the 2013 New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. Hunter's story gives the reader insights into an athlete at the top of his game, Aries Merritt, both gold medalist and World record holder. 


Sometimes Less Is More
Aries Merritt Is Effervescent Hurdle Perfectionist


When you aspire to be one of the world's greatest in the 110 meter hurdle -- an event that requires errorless execution and where races are decided by inches -- it is important to have a perfectionist's work ethic and a steely poise. And when you spend a little time with Aries Merritt, you get the sense that he is a dedicated student of the hurdling craft and that he doesn't rattle easily.

So when Merritt detected a troubling cramping in his trail leg -- just 4 days before the February 2nd New Balance Indoor Grand Prix -- he kept his cool. "When I was going through my Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngwarm-up, I just felt something that wasn't right. My hamstring was starting to cramp up on me. And I thought, 'OK, this isn't good,'" Merritt laughs. "It is not good to put stress on a cramp -- especially at a high level, professional meet," he explains. "I don't to want to risk anything happening to my leg at such an early stage of the year. So I decided to pull out of the meet. This is a really big year. There's a world championship coming up in Moscow. I am trying to get ready for that. I don't need anything that would cause me to end my season early"

Caution and composure are not traits normally affiliated with twitchy hurdlers who often embrace their event with a jumpy obsession. But last year's #1-ranked high hurdler appears to bring a refreshing calmness to his life as the planet's best. "I will be running indoors," notes Merritt who is about to embark on a brief European swing. "I just didn't want to push it," he offers matter-of-factly. "So I just had to take this weekend off. It is really smart for me not to try to push something."  And with a remark that would make Yogi Berra smile, Merritt laughs and adds, "I didn't want to make something that's nothing into something that's something."

Aries Merritt -- now 27 -- lives in College Station, Texas, trains at the top flight facilities on the Texas A&M campus, and is coached by Andreas Behm.  He first drew widespread attention in 2004 when he captured 110 hurdle gold at the World Junior Championships. And he solidified his stature as one the event's rising stars in 2006 when an NCAA hurdles title capped his undefeated collegiate season. For the next several years, post-collegiate competition proved tougher. While Merritt swiftly established himself among the world's top dozen hurdlers and often was a big-meet finalist, he rarely made the podium. It proved to be a gnawing frustration that drove the young hurdler onward. Not content simply to be among the world's best, Merritt never stopped looking for that technique refinement, that special edge that could shave a hundredth of a second here or there -- a slim margin, to be sure, but often the difference between capturing or missing a win, a team berth, or an Olympic or World Championship medal.

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Consider the moment, Aries Merritt, 12.80, WR, photo by PhotoRun.net

Merritt discovered a technique change that might benefit him as 2012 -- an Olympic year -- commenced. The hurdler saw that re-engineering his step count to the first barrier could be the key, that small difference he was looking for. "As the 2012 season began, I changed my step technique from the blocks to the first hurdle from 8 steps to 7 steps. That was just the beginning of something great. Changing those steps definitely was a big change," he offers. "You literally have to take your weaker leg and force it to the front of the pedal so that you can actually make it to the first hurdle in the proper amount of steps and still be on the same hurdling leg -- which is my left lead leg," explains Merritt. Success was not immediate as adjustments were required. "It was pretty shaky early in the season. My first indoor race was awful," Merritt admits. But then improvement began to emerge. "Through training, I got more comfortable with it. At the New Balance meet last year, I came in second. I actually hit a start and I was really surprised. And I thought, 'Oh, my God, I actually did it right.' I was just in shock."  The young hurdler quickly saw the potential. "I had been blowing hurdles here and there. And I thought, 'Wow, if I can clean this up, I can be really dangerous,'" Merritt admits with a quick smile. 

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Aries Merritt, WR, 12.80, photo by PhotoRun.net  

Merritt didn't fully refine his new start technique until late February of 2012. "I just went to indoor nationals to instill the rhythm of the 7-step approach. I was still trying to learn how to do it properly. And I wanted to get in as much racing in as I could because I knew the only way I was going to learn to do it properly was in a race setting. It took all of those races leading into the indoor nationals to get it right."  And get it right, he did. With the 7-step run up to the first hurdle becoming second nature, Merritt breezed through the indoor rounds and captured the national 60 hurdle final -- upsetting pre-race favorite Dexter Faulk who came into the 2012 championship with the world's fastest indoor hurdle time. Merritt's abbreviated 7-step approach proved to be the difference. And suddenly Merritt knew: sometimes less can be more.

With the perfected first hurdle run-up buoying his confidence, Merritt proceeded to string together impressive performances, nearly running the table. The reinvigorated hurdler captured the world indoor title and turned his sights on the outdoor season and the big prize at stake in London. He was almost unbeatable. "I did have two outdoor losses. Lui Xiang beat me early in the outdoor season in Shanghai. And then he came to the States and beat me again at the Prefontaine meet," he explains. But then with a quick smile and a laugh, Merritt adds, "And then I didn't lose anymore."

After Pre, no one could touch Aries Merritt -- as he racked up a convincing win (12.93) at the Olympic Trials, turned in a flawless performance through the rounds and in the final (12.92) in London, and ran away with the Diamond League hurdle crown.

But the newly-crowned Olympic champion saved the best for last. In his final race of the year -- on a perfectly still night in Brussels -- Merritt was able put it all together. The meet offered Merritt what he longed for -- the field, the crowd, the temperature, and the wind conditions -- that would allow him to take aim at the world record.  Drawing from the knowledge gained from his endless -- "over 600" -- video viewings of Lui's '04 Olympic finals gem, Merritt got out of the blocks cleanly, broke away from a world class field, and raced without error over the barriers. His focused run-in after the tenth hurdle -- capped by a well-timed lean -- stopped the clock at 12.80 seconds and took down Dayron Robles' world record time of 12.87. Some perspective here is important:  Prior to Merritt's stunning Belgium performance, it took over 31 years for the 110 hurdles WR to be chipped down by .06 seconds. But for Merritt to lower the record by the wider margin of .07 seconds, it took only, well, 12.80 seconds.

Was Merritt's stunning Brussels performance the perfect race? "There is always room for improvement. No race is particularly perfect," the world record holder offers. "My coach and I have watched the race to observe what I could have done better.  I was pretty conservative at the start of the race. I didn't want to false start."  And with smile, he adds, "Because I have been wrongly charged with two false starts outdoors."

As he looks back on his incredible year, Aries Merritt is philosophical. "All my life I've heard from hurdle greats like Gail Devers, Allen Johnson, and Renaldo Nehemiah, 'You're going to be the next one. Just be patient. It will come,'" Merritt reveals. "And then every year I would get hurt, get injured. It was just an ongoing struggle to stay healthy. I was chucking down my time. But I was just getting stuck every year at this one point."  And with a big smile, he adds:  "And then -- finally -- I had that big breakthrough."  Indeed, he did. After Merritt's storybook year in 2012, it may be unrealistic to think the world's leading high hurdler can top last year. But given his perfectionist outlook and his grace under fire, don't be surprised if the reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder finds a way to give us an encore.
 
~Dave Hunter

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 Aries Merritt, 12.80 WR, 110m hurdles, photo by PhotoRun.net


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