At age 27, after six unremarkable years on the international track circuit, everything came together for Aries Merritt in 2012.
A better diet that made him leaner. No injuries for the first time he can recall. The experience necessary to flow instead of float or bang over the 42-inch barriers.
And taking a difficult step back to make a huge leap forward.
A guy who never before had ranked higher than fifth in the world won the Olympic gold medal and the world indoor title this year – both on his first try.
A guy who never before this season had run the 110-meter hurdles faster than 13.09 seconds broke the 13-second barrier eight times since June, the last smashing the world record with a stunning time of 12.80 at Friday’s Diamond League meet in Brussels.
“This is a dream season for me, a dream season for anyone," Merritt said on a conference call. "I don’t think anyone has ever done what I have done this year. Ever.
“I’m still in shock at the time. I knew it (the record) was going to happen, but I didn’t think I would be so deep under 12.90."
Merritt’s personal best had been 12.92 from the Olympic final. His time Friday was a whopping .07 better than the old mark set by Dayron Robles of Cuba in 2008. Not since Renaldo Nehemiah in 1981 had a hurdler lowered the world record by that large a margin. It had fallen just .06 over the ensuing 31 years until Friday.
"Hurdles is one of those events where you get faster with age," said Merritt. "It’s such a technical event. This is one of those years when I just figured everything out. It wasn’t one thing that separated me from everyone else."
The most significant thing Merritt figured out was how to change from eight to seven steps before the first of the 10 hurdles. It eventually made him faster.
"It’s like trying to write in cursive with your left hand if you are right-handed," he said. "It is really difficult to make the switch.
"I spent the entire indoor season trying to find a rhythm to the first hurdle. Sometimes I would get it right, and sometimes I wouldn’t get it at all."
Merritt grew up outside Atlanta, won an NCAA outdoor hurdles title in 2006 for Tennessee and now trains in College Station, Texas with Texas A&M assistant coach Andreas Behm. He is the first U.S. high hurdler to hold the world record since Roger Kingdom lost his mark to Colin Jackson of Great Britain in 1993.
Merritt’s personal best prior to this season dated to 2007. His best time last year was 13.12. His body was falling apart all the time.
"Left and right hamstring tears," he said. "Tore my quad. Torn ligaments in the ankle. Stress fracture in my foot. Blown out my knee. You name it, it has happened to me."
After Friday’s race, Merritt’s hamstrings felt as if they were going to explode. His calves were crying uncle.
"You have the normal hamstring ache, the calf tightness, your feet hurt," he said. "Those things are happening because of the time, because I took my body to another level."
Merritt did it in a race he said was close to perfect. He hit no hurdles and charged rather than floated over each one.
It felt great.