In 2013, Aries Merritt was told his career was over. The track and field star, who nabbed gold during the 2012 Olympics and currently holds the the world record in the 110 meter hurdles, was diagnosed with collapsing FSGS, a genetic kidney disease that would prove fatal without a transplant.
Instead of trembling in the face of the daunting prognosis, however, Merritt fought back – and won.
“I was told I wouldn’t be able to do anything ever again,” Meritt tells PEOPLE. “I would have to sit in the hospital and get dialysis and wait for a transplant.”
Merritt, now 30, says his diagnosis was followed by years of hospital stays, and experimental drug treatments – all while he continued to compete. In 2015, Merritt’s strenuous training regimen had accelerated the death of his kidney function to the point where the only option was transplantation. Luckily, his sister LaToya Hubbard was a match.
“The conversation pretty much went like this: ‘Hey Toya, I’m going to need a transplant so I’m going to be searching for a donor, keep a lookout,’ ” Merritt explains. He says Hubbard responded, ” ‘Oh don’t worry about it, I’ll probably be a match. I’ll get tested right now. Click.’ ”
Merritt says his sister wasted no time getting tested, calling the situation “pretty straightforward.” In September, he underwent the successful surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix – but only after one final competition with his old kidney. Merritt took bronze at the IAAF world championships that August.
The transplant recovery period lasted eight weeks, with an additional two months of rest following a second surgery. “The recovery process was tough at first for the first surgery because I was immunosuppressed. For the second I didn’t have immunosuppression, and it was smoother.”
Pleased with his progress, Merritt tells PEOPLE he feels “good” moving into the Rio trials that begin Friday, asserting that his health is better than ever.
“I’m in much better shape. I can finish reps and recover incredibly quick as opposed to the last couple of years where I couldn’t recover at all,” he explains. “The only worry I had when I first came back to training was that the incision wound would open or that I would get a hernia from training too soon. I waited until the doctors told me I was cleared to train and they cleared me and I started training.”
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Despite his return to the track, there are still noticeable differences in Merritt’s lifestyle post-transplant: his renal diet has been replaced with a more normal plan that includes minimal restrictions like no pomegranates or raw meats, both of which interact with his medications.
However, powering through what could have been a death sentence with unending positivity is what makes Merritt a champion: “I kept pushing forward and saying there has to be another way to get around this. And I found that way.”
“The main message I want to tell people is to follow your heart and follow you dream and never give up on what you want.”