Trenten Merrill smiles on the medal stand at the 2019 ParaPan American Games
Trenten Merrill was at an impasse. The talented runner and long jumper wasn’t making progress as an athlete at the University of Colorado, and, without a coach, he struggled to train by himself.
That’s when, he said, he was given a sign. Merrill was getting ready for his workout one day, and reached into a pile of clothes for a T-shirt. The one he pulled out was gray. On it read Azusa Pacific University Track and Field.
“I took it as a sign from God,” he said.
Now, as the world silver medalist, 2016 Paralympian and national long jump champion prepares for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021, he looks back at all of his obstacles and believes there was a plan all along.
Growing up, the California native had high hopes for a professional athletic career, playing soccer and running for his middle school track team. That is, until he lost his lower leg at 14 in a dirt biking accident. Merrill’s dreams of competing in track in high school and eventually becoming a professional athlete were suddenly dashed. While Merrill still played sports after the accident, he didn’t see continuing his track career as an option.
“I just limited myself to what I thought was possible at the time,” he said. “Until I saw it was possible.”
That’s exactly what happened four years later, when Merrill was a freshman at a community college and he was invited to a running clinic. There, Merrill met the head coach for the U.S. Paralympic Team, along with four-time Paralympic gold medalist Brian Frasure, who asked Merrill if he’d ever considered competing in Para track.
“I was 19 at the time, and I told him I’d never heard of the Paralympics,” Merrill said.
Then, the head coach gave him his card, which sat on Merrill’s nightstand for a month. But something led him to finally make the call.
“It was like an itch,” he said. “I just felt drawn.”
Merrill was invited to a developmental camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where he finally found an explanation for his first major obstacle in life.
“Right when I set foot in the training center, I was reminded of what God had told me in the hospital, that he had great plans for me,” Merrill said. “I thought (my dream of competing professionally) was taken away when I was 14 years old when I lost my foot … I knew then that this is what I want to do.”
Merrill joined his community college team for the 2010-2011 season and went to his first national championships that season.
He said, “I just had a blast being on a team again,” but also that track helped him find his purpose after his first year of college. “I was staying up late, and just having fun with friends, not really being super productive,” he said. “When I got into track and field again, my focus changed.”
But soon, Merrill would encounter the second big hurdle of his career. He decided to transfer to the University of Colorado, whose head coach had said he could join the team.
“Then when I got there, I set up a meeting with him, and it was a little bit different in person,” Merrill said.
According to Merrill, after moving to Boulder ready to work, he tried getting in touch with the sprints and jumps coach, but “he just wasn’t returning any of my calls.” Merrill said he next enlisted the help of a friend, who spoke to the coach, then told Merrill, “Sorry, but they think you’re a liability.”
“My heart was broken,” Merrill said. “I think they looked at me and they were like, ‘No, he's not gonna score any points (for the team)’ … but they weren’t looking at my character and my work ethic and what I have to offer other than that.”
Merrill had suddenly found himself without a team or a coach.