Equal Footing

by Evelyn Barge

Trenten Merrill ’14 stares down the narrow track runway with palpable intensity. In the moments that follow, he surges forward in a burst of speed, intent on the takeoff that propels his body more than 18 feet. The impact of his descent sends up a spray of sand in the landing pit.

Walking away, Merrill resumes his signature stride. The subtly distinctive gait has little to do with attitude—although Merrill exudes confidence—and more to do with the carbon-fiber running blade that enables the single-leg amputee to compete on Azusa Pacific’s track and field team.

“I’m not getting my leg back, so I’ve got to rock it,” said Merrill with a grin.

A first-year transfer to APU and already a U.S. national-class athlete in the paralympic classification, he has his eye on the Paralympic Games. Merrill said APU provides the ideal training ground to test his mettle as a collegiate athlete while also preparing for postcollegiate aspirations. He has qualified twice previously, in 2010 and 2012, for the U.S. Paralympic Trials. “Trenten is one of those extremely self-motivated athletes,” said Kevin Reid ’88, men’s track and field head coach. “At APU,
he gains strength and speed while competing against athletes who race at his level. He has a great outlook that drives him forward in our athletic program, particularly as we push to get more athletes to that elite level.”

Just weeks after arriving at APU, Merrill received a vote of confidence from fellow athletes when they named him a team captain. “He has a never- ending thirst for improving as a competitor,” said teammate Tomek Czerwinski ’14, who calls Merrill an energetic leader bolstered by a strong faith and an unshakeable good nature. While all athletes face the possibility of injury, Merrill must contend with the physical stresses that sprinting and jumping place on his prosthetic limb, too. Waiting on weeklong repairs or replacements for the high-tech leg—three of Merrill’s running prosthetics broke already this year—causes a serious disruption to a rigorous training schedule, but Czerwinski said Merrill refuses to skip a beat. “He finds a way to work through it and keep training,” 
said Czerwinski.

Merrill credits APU’s track program with helping him close in on his goals. “From my teammates to the coaches, everyone on the team inspires me. We push each other, because we’re all out there, putting in the work, struggling, and trying to reach our dreams. We see in each other our true potential.”

Eight years ago in his hometown of San Juan Capistrano, it seemed that emerging potential might have been lost when a car collided with the dirt bike Merrill and a friend were riding. Then just 14, Merrill’s right foot was mangled in the accident and eventually amputated. A staggering loss for any vibrant young person, the ramifications were especially tough for Merrill, a promising soccer and volleyball player, as the doctors cautioned him that such physical activities would prove difficult.

But Merrill refused to sit on the sidelines. After two months in the hospital and another three of healing—and newly equipped with a prosthetic—he dove back into a variety of sports. The Paralympic hopeful zeroed in on track while he was a student at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo. Encouraged by his prosthetic specialist, Merrill attended a running clinic and met Joaquim Cruz, coach of the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Team. Soon after, Cruz invited Merrill to visit the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. “I was in awe,” said Merrill, recalling the experience. “My whole life, I’ve wanted to become a professional athlete, and I didn’t think I would have the opportunity anymore. Sitting in the training center, I watched all these athletes whose lives revolve around training. I thought, ‘This is the life. This is what I want to do.’”

That realization eventually led him to APU, after a detour to the University of Colorado, Boulder, where NCAA Division I eligibility restrictions tied to length of enrollment kept him from competing. “It was mentally tough to find out I was not going to train or run there,” said Merrill. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because APU was the answer I was praying to find.”

The solution came in the form of an APU commercial that caught Merrill’s attention on an Internet radio service. A few days later, he discovered an Azusa Pacific T-shirt stashed among his own clothes from a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp.

“I started watching videos of Bryan Clay training at APU, and it was evident that God was speaking to me,” he said. Merrill connected with Reid, and everything fell into place. “To go from not knowing if I was able to compete in any sport to being part of a collegiate track and field team—what He’s given me blows my mind,” said Merrill. Driven by his pursuit of excellence, Merrill has grown accustomed to and even welcomes curious inquiries and glances. Those who look close enough may notice the Cougar claw emblem decorating his running blade. Below it: the words God First.

Originally published in the Summer '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.