APU Grad Shows Resilience with Medal Win in Tokyo Paralympics

by Nathan Foster

Trenten Merrill ’15 went to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games on a mission. He was determined to succeed in the long jump and represent the U.S. on the podium after falling just short in his Paralympic debut at the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Although his jump in Rio was a personal best and it broke the American record, it placed him fourth and just off the podium. 

“Rio was an amazing experience. Tokyo was incredible, but more laid back without all the fans there,” he said. Although he felt much more prepared going into his second Paralympic games, Merrill didn’t have an auspicious start in Tokyo. “I tripped up on my second jump and just ate it in front of everyone.” 

Although the jump was painful and hurt his chances at attaining a medal, Merrill was not daunted by a little adversity. He had overcome much greater obstacles in his life.

When he was 14 years old, Merrill and his best friend were riding dirt bikes to his house in San Juan Capistrano, California. They came to the final turn before the house, looked both ways, and began to cross the street. “We didn’t see the car when we checked, and they didn’t see us, because there was a divided median with trees and shrubs that obstructed the view,” he said. “I woke up in the other lane and it felt like the whole thing was a dream at first. Then I looked over and saw my friend Scott on the ground, screaming. I realized it wasn’t a dream. It was real.”

Merrill felt a numb sensation in one of his feet and could tell from looking at it that it was broken. He grabbed his cell phone and called his dad, who arrived followed by two ambulances. They first took Scott, who was in critical condition with a broken back, chipped pelvis, punctured lung, and a bruised face from hitting the car’s windshield. With much medical intervention and prayer, Merrill’s friend eventually made a full recovery. 

Merrill remained in the hospital for the next month and a half. After several weeks of effort to avoid the unthinkable, the doctors at Mission Hospital delivered the news that he would need his right leg amputated, just below the knee. Merrill began to cry, panicking at the thought of a life without one of his legs. He reflected on his identity, which was largely rooted in athletics. 

Growing up, Merrill played numerous sports—soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey, swimming, and motocross racing. “I remember watching those old Gatorade commercials with Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm and falling in love with sports,” he said. “My dad taught me to play basketball when I was in preschool and we’d play every night until dinnertime, but I would only come in to dinner if I was winning; otherwise we’d keep playing.” This passion for competition grew with time. When he was asked to think about his dream career, Merrill always answered he would be a professional athlete. 

“I felt like my identity was gone when they told me about the amputation. My heart was broken and I didn’t know what my life would be like,” he said. “Then my friend’s mom walked into my hospital room and started praying over me. I felt the Holy Spirit and I sensed God telling me He had big plans for me.” Merrill decided to place his trust in God, and at that moment his uncertainty and anguish were replaced by peace and hope. 

Soon after Merrill received his prosthetic leg, he was up and moving again. “I was walking on it that first day, and jogging by the end of the first week. Once I knew I could run with my prosthetic, I just wanted to go back to playing sports. I allowed myself to be me again, to try everything, and not be afraid to fail.”

Merrill continued playing sports in high school, including two new ones for him, volleyball and wrestling. It wasn’t until college that he began competing in track and field. He always knew he was fast, even outrunning some of his teammates during wrestling practice, but he didn’t find out about the Paralympics until his sophomore year at Saddleback Community College. He was invited to a running clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation where he met Joaquim Cruz, a retired Brazilian Olympian sprinter who now coached Paralympians. Merrill instantly recognized that this was the move he needed to make—his new dream was to become a track and field Paralympian.

To take the next step in his journey, Merrill decided he needed to transfer to a university. “I had heard a lot of Azusa Pacific ads on my Lecrae/Christian rap Pandora radio station. Then I was watching track and field videos on YouTube and came across Bryan Clay training for the 2012 Olympics at APU,” he said. “The last sign came one day when I was heading to the gym and reached into a pile of workout shirts and pulled out an ‘APU Track & Field’ shirt. I had gotten it at a camp from a friend named John Ellis, who had gone to APU. I decided three signs were enough.” 

Merrill began to research APU. He reached out to then-coach Kevin Reid, who got back to him immediately and said the team would love to have him. “I went to check out the school in person,” said Merrill. “As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I knew this was the place I belonged. God brought me to Azusa.” Merrill competed for the Cougars from 2013-14. He went professional in 2015 and finished up his last few APU classes online.

His years of hard work and perseverance paid off in Tokyo. After his second long jump, Merrill crawled out of the sand pit determined. “I told myself to keep going, to fight. It was a mental battle. I focused on taking it one jump at a time, not worrying about anything else,” he said. He jumped three more times, including a 7.08-meter jump that placed him third in the T64 category. “To put the U.S. on the podium and see that American flag raised, that was an incredible feeling. To get a medal was such an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s now a part of history. I’ll always be grateful.”

Merrill celebrated his achievement, but is by no means resting on his laurels. He aspires to keep competing and setting personal bests, has broken the American record three times, and strives to set more records, including becoming only the second jumper in his category to jump over 8 meters (his current record is 7.75 meters). If he can jump that far, Merrill has a shot at beating Markus Rehm, an undefeated German jumper.

Merrill plans to compete in two more Paralympic games, and he dreams of ending his athletic career at home in Los Angeles in 2028. That goal, and his desire to bring glory to God, are what drive Merrill. “Faith is what helps me in the best and worst of times,” he said. “All this is meaningless without it. It gives me a purpose. It gives me the fuel to keep going. God created me to be an athlete. He hasn’t told me that I’m finished yet, so I’m going to keep going.”

Nathan Foster is a freelance writer and teacher living in Nashville, Tennessee. [email protected]