Trenten Merrill makes a cameo in the new issue of Amplitude, singing the praises of renowned prosthetist Francois Van Der Watt. A running-blade guru who has had at least one medal-winning client at every Paralympics since 2000, Van Der Watt has fitted Merrill with an innovative Össur blade that’s been optimized for the long jump.
“In the past we just used a sprint blade,” says Merrill, who finished fourth in the long jump at the 2016 Rio Games and set a new US record in the event in 2018. “We just aligned it differently and tweaked it here and there to try to maximize the long jump performance. It’s a whole different angle of blade—more of a bow or a C-shape, instead of a J.”
When we caught up with Merrill last week, shortly after he was officially named to the US Paralympic Team, he was watching his able-bodied counterparts taking flight at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Merrill has spent the last year-plus working out with those jumpers at Team USA’s training complex in Chula Vista, California, and he thinks athletes and fans alike would benefit from a joint national meet that brings Olympians and Paralympians together in a single venue.
Do you give yourself a break after a competition like the Trials? Do you get any down time, or do you just fly home and get back to to your regular training regimen?
Mentally that’s what I’d rather be doing, but my coach told me to take the week off, and I’m having a really hard time finishing the week without working out. I have really big goals, and I want to keep working for those. It’s important to let your body heal, but mentally it’s tough. It’s kind of confusing to your mind, because you’re thinking: “I should be training right now. What am I doing resting?” But it’s important for my body to get the rest, because when we get back into it, it’s going to be another two months of nonstop training. It’s really important to be motivated and locked in mentally when I get to Tokyo.
How have you been spending the time this week?
I’ve been taking advantage of this time to get better at day-trading. My brother and I have been waking up early to trade stocks. Other than that, I’ve been chilling by the pool, relaxing, watching movies, and hanging out with my brother. The Olympic Trials are going on, and I’ve been staying in tune with that pretty heavily. So it probably doesn’t help that I’m watching more track and field when I can’t work out. The one good thing is that I really miss it. It’s going to be really good starting Monday to be back at training. I’m going to be ready to go.
Since you mentioned the Olympic Trials: There was a runner there, a world-record holder, who ran a poor qualifying race and ended up not making the team. Afterward he said the Trials are almost heavier pressure than the Olympics themselves. Do you feel that way too?
I think we all felt that, even myself, who was highly confident going in. It’s still one of those things where you have to perform. We do have some discretionary spots, but it’s like in the UFC: You never want to leave it up to the judges. You want to have a clear knockout. You want a secure spot. So there is a lot of pressure going into Trials, and I know a lot of athletes feel a sense of relief when they make the team. You just can’t let your guard down. You’ve always got to be on top of your game, whether you’re going into the Trials or into the main event, be it the Olympics or Paralympics. Because that’s what you’ve been working so hard for.
Was the Trials your first meet since 2019, or have you had a chance to get out and compete since everything started opening back up post-COVID?
It’s a huge blessing living at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center. I’ve been able to train there, and we’ve had about two meets a month. That’s been very, very good for my path. It’s been a lot of fun, and I have one more meet, potentially two more, before I leave for Tokyo in August.
Were you out there in Chula Vista throughout the pandemic ?
Yes, but I wasn’t living onsite. I was living off-site, so I was limited to what I could do and what resources I could use. I decided to come up to Orange County to start training at the limited places that were open. I was having to drive to Long Beach to go train on a track, and then I’d go to Irvine to train at the gym. It was tough, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I found myself getting a lot better, and I wanted to take advantage of that time because I knew there were a lot of people who didn’t have the resources to train. So it was really important for me to do that.
Will you only be competing in the long jump at Tokyo? I saw you had a really strong time in the 200 [at Trials] as well.
Yes, I’ll be doing both the long jump and the 200 meters. [The 200 is] one of my favorite events, and I haven’t done it in a while, but I ended up doing well at Trials, so I’m really excited to get to compete more than once in Tokyo. Long jump is my favorite event, and that’s where I really want to focus. But I’m trying hard to get in better shape for the 200 so I can go to Tokyo with the goal to bring home two medals.
A guy named Marcus Rehm set a new world record in the long jump last month in a European meet. Did you compete against him in 2016 at Rio?
Yes, he’s a living legend. I don’t know how many years he has gone undefeated, but this guy is the tipping point in our sport. He’s the Roger Bannister, the guy to do something that nobody’s done before. It’s a huge blessing to have somebody to chase, because he’s been showing that it’s possible to jump these great distances that nobody’s ever done before.
So you guys have a bit of a rivalry going?
I don’t know if it’s a rivalry, because I haven’t given him a run for his money. But I’m second to him right now in the world ranking, and I’m continuing to progress, and I believe I can start giving him a run. And that’s what I want to do. I want there to be a challenge for him, and I want to be the guy to challenge him. I want to be the first guy to beat him. I think it would be great for him to have competition in the Paralympics and be pushed. I’m working really hard to create that rivalry. I want to be the first guy to knock him down.
Talk to me a little bit about the broader impact the Paralympics can have. There’s going to be so much more attention on the Games in the US than ever before. How can you and the other Paralympic athletes on Team USA use that opportunity?
In the overall picture, I want to create more awareness. I want to be on the same level that Great Britain is, where Paralympians compete alongside Olympians in big competitions within their country. I want that and I’m pushing for that.
What needs to happen for the United States to get to that point?
At the big track competitions in the US, there needs to be some opportunity for Paralympians to participate—like a Paralympic division. That happens overseas all the time. Start with the USA Track & Field team at their national event. There needs to be a push for the US Paralympic Track & Field team to come to that. Even if we just compete at the same facility, that would help close the gap. There are off days for the Olympic track and field team at their Nationals and the Trials, so even if we [Paralympians] just compete during the off days, that would be great. The closer we get to competing at the same meets and venues with the US Olympic team, the more we’re going to seen as equal.
When you’re at Chula Vista, are you training alongside Olympic long jumpers?
Oh yeah, I’m right there with them. They’re arguably the best Olympic long-jump crew in the world.
Is there anything the athletes can do themselves to bring this about? If you all know each other, and your Olympic teammates recognize the Paralympic athletes as peers, can they advocate for Olympic and Paralympic teammates to compete at the same meets and venues?
We’ve already created a little bit of noise over social media about it. All my teammates are supporting the push, and they’re definitely asking the same questions. The biggest thing is to have some more more weight behind it. There needs to be a legitimate movement or some type of thing that is a conversation with USA Track & Field and USA Para Track & Field. It’s probably political, so I don’t know where to to start with it, but I do know that I’m more than willing to take a stand and try and create change.
We’re already starting to make some changes, actually. The US Olympic Committee is now the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. But we’re still separate teams. The Olympic team had their Trials at one of the best stadiums in the world for track and field. And we competed at a high school that didn’t have a standard long jump runway. So it was a struggle.
During March Madness this year, there was a lot of talk about the discrepancy between the facilities available to the women’s teams, versus the much better facilities available to the men. That conversation seemed to strike a chord nationally. Could the issue of Paralympic equity make a similar impact?
I really hope so. We have to perform at Trials, but we weren’t set up to succeed. It was not easy to make the team this year.