The public perception of video games these days is that they are for the lazy and slothful. The societal stereotype of a gamer is probably someone that’s out of shape and sits on the couch eating Doritos all day while playing their video games.
Someone forgot to tell U.S. track star Aries Merritt about that stereotype.
Merritt won the gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Almost one month after capturing the gold, he then set the world record in the 110-meter hurdles at the Belgacom Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels, Belgium by posting a time of 12.80 seconds. That beat the previous record of 12.87 seconds set in 2008 by Cuba’s Dayron Robles.
But in his down-time, Merritt is most likely either taking care of his three dogs or playing video games.
“I play a lot of video games, like online games. World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, League of Legends, stuff like that,” Merritt said. He also mentioned playing console games on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, as well. He then added, “I just like to play video games. It’s something that just stuck with me from when I was a child until now.”
In actuality, it’s a good thing that Merritt did find video games as a child. If video games hadn’t been a part of his childhood, he might not have ever primarily focused on running track.
Growing up, Merritt obviously ran track, but he also took competitive gymnastics for “about three years.” But as he started to grow and was participating in two sports, his joints and knees started to hurt him all the time and he wasn’t sticking his landings. It was at that point where his gymnastics coach approached him.
“My gymnastics coach was like, ‘Look, we need to decide what you want to do,’” Merritt said.
Basically, he was being forced to choose between gymnastics or track. That’s where video games came into the equation.
“It was kind of my little thing where I was like track came first [in the day], so if I finish with this activity, I can get home and play my video games, because I loved to play Nintendo and all that kind of stuff as a child, and even now,” Merritt said. “That’s why I did track and just dropped gymnastics.”
Merritt says that the skills he learned as a gymnast carried over into track and that it was really important in his development as an athlete. Given his success in 2012 though, it seems safe to say that he made a smart decision.
Another enormous decision that Merritt made was at the start of 2012 when he decided to change his approach to the first hurdle. Instead of taking eight strides like he had been up to the first hurdle, Merritt changed that approach to seven steps, a change that he described as pressuring and significant, particularly in an Olympic year. He used the 60-meter hurdles events at indoor meets to help get the new approach down-pat.
“Indoor is just the building block to outdoor; it’s only half of the race,” Merritt said. “The last half is obviously outdoors, but perfecting that first half of the race was key for me in 2012.”
Taking one step out of the approach was a difficult task for Merritt, though. The biggest challenge for him was switching to coming off of his weaker leg, as opposed his dominant leg that he’d been using his whole life. Merritt likened it to trying to write in cursive with your left hand when you’re right-handed.
“Learning that in such a short amount of time is probably a miracle, I would say. But I had the will to get it done,” Merritt said. “Getting all of that done in 2012 is kind of like a fairytale, because I never would have expected to go on to win the Olympic Games after the trials.”
In winning that Olympic gold medal this past summer at the London Games, Merritt became the first American to win the gold in the 110-meter hurdles since Allen Johnson in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Johnson was also one of the first people to talk to Merritt after he dealt with the press and drug testing.
“He was pretty much excited that I brought the gold back to American soil, since it had been so long and since we have such a good lineage and legacy of hurdlers in the United States. So he was really excited it happened for me. He’s been kind of like a mentor and teacher,” Merritt said. “He told me after, he was like, ‘You got the world record in you, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ Then like a few weeks later I ended up breaking the world record.”
When he broke the world record on Sept. 7 of 2012, everything was obviously clicking for him at the time. But Merritt still doesn’t feel like he ran a perfect race.
“I made a few errors. I mean, it was as perfect of a race as anyone has ever run, obviously, because it was a world record. But there are still some kinks that need to be worked out,” Merritt said.
He said that he felt like his start could have been better and that he kind of floated the final hurdle when he should go more through the barrier than over it like he did slightly.
“I think there’s room for improvement. As a hurdler, you always strive for that perfect race. But as an athlete, you never get that perfect race,” Merritt said.
Merritt said breaking the world record was great, but that it paled in comparison to winning the gold in London at the Olympic Games.
“I’ve submitted myself as an Olympic champion and once you’re an Olympic champion that can never be taken away. I’m really privileged and blessed to be an Olympic champion because not many people get that opportunity to even go to the Olympic Games, let alone become champion. It’s such a rare occurrence,” Merritt said. “To break the world record was great, but that can always be taken away because someone else can come after me and break it.”
As a United States Olympian and a gold medalist, Merritt had the opportunity to go to the White House and meet President Barack Obama. He said it was a huge honor to get to do that, but that the event was also kind of humorous. Each athlete was promised that they would get to shake President Obama’s hand, even if it meant the President putting other work off for bit.
“He had all kinds of meeting he had put on hold for us and so I thought that was a pretty big honor. On top of that, when I actually met him and I shook his hand, he was like, ‘Oh, you’re the hurdle guy.’ He actually knew who I was and that was pretty impressive,” Merritt said. “I looked at Tyson [Gay] and I was like, ‘Oh! He knows who I am!’ It was pretty funny.”
Another funny story that Merritt had was from the Reebok Hoops Summit last summer. While there, he had the opportunity to race Wizard’s guard John Wall, one of the fastest players in the NBA. Merritt said that even though Wall was quick on the floor, Wall wasn’t a match for him on the track because that’s what Merritt “does for a living.” He did also mention that Wall doesn’t have the luxury of focusing only on his speed and has to focus on his shot and other aspects of basketball.
“I’m not going to say he didn’t challenge me because I wasn’t really running as hard as I could when I raced him. It was more of a don’t-get-hurt-after-the-Olympics kind of deal because I still had races. I was just trying to compete and to make it interesting,” Merritt said.
2012 was wildly successful for Merritt. He captured two things that few people ever will in an Olympic gold medal and a world record. As for 2013, Merritt says his slogan is to “become legendary.” To do that, he has a specific set of goals.
“I need to maintain a high level of consistency, like I did in 2012. I need to run sub-13 a few more times. Well, more than a few, like four more times to be the best, or rather the person who has run the most sub-13s in the history of our sports,” Merritt said. “I think I can do that this season. I ran eight last year, so running half as many hopefully won’t be a big deal, if I stay healthy.”
The likelihood of Merritt becoming legendary in 2013 definitely seems pretty high. He knows what he has to achieve and seems to know how to make it happen. Given all that he made happen in 2012, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt him.
“I don’t know if I’ll break the world record again in this upcoming season, but who knows. You never know what time has in store,” Merritt said. “I’m just going to stay patient and try and stay as consistent as possible with my training, with my diet and with my treatment. And hopefully the times will be there just from competing.”