In a moment that perfectly encapsulated the distanced, depersonalized reality of our pandemic-adjusted world, Sam Grewe and Leo Merle logged onto a Zoom call to await the biggest news of their lives.
The Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness athletes had just spent the weekend competing at the Paralympic track and field trials in Minneapolis. The trials, broadcasted live on NBC Sports, are the exclusive determinant of whether or not an athlete is selected to represent the United States at the Paralympic games in Tokyo. While an athlete must demonstrate long-term excellence to receive an invite to the trials, only their performance on the day of trials matters for the final decision of whether or not they’ve earned a seat on the plane.
For Merle, this was all new. While he had competed for four years as part of the able-bodied track and field team at UC Santa Cruz, Merle began focusing on para-athletics only recently.
Despite his relative lack of para-athletic experience, Merle’s potential quickly began to grab some attention. A number of Paralympic track and field coaches felt that a spot for him at the upcoming Paralympic games in Tokyo was well within reach.
Sensing his opportunity, Merle trained relentlessly over the past year. Of course, this is the standard for prospective Paralympic athletes. But Merle is no ordinary athlete.
While running, working out or cross-training nearly every day of the week, Merle juggled the intense pressure of being the president of his class at Michigan’s School of Dentistry.
Merle was a sure pick for the Paralympic team — until disaster struck a few months ago.
Gradually, he began to notice a growing pain in his right leg. The pain eventually became so severe that Merle could no longer bear to run, confining him to the stationary bike. Merle was faced with a dilemma — to keep running but risk further injury, or stop running and allow his leg to heal but risk losing the fitness he had worked so hard to obtain?
“I had an innate feeling going into the race that I was not in enough shape for this,” Merle said. “I just had that mentality that it wasn’t going to go great.”
Merle ran the 1500 meter at a time of 4 minutes and 23 seconds — a far cry from his best. But there was still a chance it would be good enough.
Normally, the United States brings 45 male track and field athletes to the Paralympics. After doing some digging, Merle concluded that if this was the case this year, he had done enough — just barely — to book his spot on the flight.
However, he knew this was unlikely. The decision to go ahead with the Paralympics at all is still widely contentious, as vaccinations have lagged and Covid-19 cases have skyrocketed in Japan. The United States might be forced to cut the size of its team.
So, as the list of selected U.S. Paralympic track and field athletes was hastily read out to the Zoom call’s attendees, Merle was unsurprised when his name was not called. His Paralympic dreams would have to wait another four years.
“I think there is a silver lining in this situation,” Merle said. “The doctor told me that if I had kept pushing it, there was a good chance I would’ve needed surgery to replace the cartilage in my hip. So I didn’t get to go, but I think I just prolonged my career for another four years.”
After some much needed rest, Merle will begin training for the 2022 World Para Athletic Championships in Kobe, Japan. Looking even further ahead, Merle is intent on gradually building a strong foundation that will help him avoid injury leading up to the 2024 Paralympic games, the absence of which he feels contributed to his health issues this year.
“Obviously, it’s a bummer,” Merle said. “But I know that if it were any other Paralympic year, I would be going. I know that I’m fast enough, I know that I’m good enough to go. That’s just how it worked out this year.”
Grewe’s name, however, was called.
The experienced high jumper Grewe is a new addition to the Michigan Adaptive track and field team. Before coming to Michigan, he competed as a member of Notre Dame’s able-bodied track and field team while simultaneously representing the United States at international para track and field competitions.
This isn’t the first time Grewe has been selected to compete for America in the Paralympics, either. In 2016, Grewe leaped his way to a silver medal in the high jump, despite starting the sport just two years earlier. Currently, he holds the world record for his classification in high jump with a remarkable 1.90 meter jump, winning him gold in the 2019 Parapan American Games in Peru.
As a favorite to win gold in Tokyo, trials weren’t much of a sweat for Grewe.
“In the five years since Rio, I’ve grown so much in my high jumping abilities,” Grewe said. “The standard that I needed to jump to make the U.S. team was pretty regularly the starting height at Notre Dame competitions, so I felt confident that even on a bad day of jumps, I should make the team.”
And it was actually a bad day of jumps for Grewe. Coming off of a recent injury, Grewe jumped 1.85 meters, below his personal best. But his invitation to Tokyo was never in doubt.
Grewe is confident that his prior experience at international competitions has put him in a great place ahead of the games in August.
“It’s hard to be able to go to a different country and be able to adapt quickly enough so that you can seamlessly transition into your training and competing there,” Grewe said. “That took a long time for me to figure out how to do. And the pressures that competing internationally at such a big venue can bring — that’s something I’m very grateful to have experienced already. I’m expecting a lot less nerves in Tokyo.”
While the opportunity to represent one’s country at the Paralympics is undoubtedly among the highest honors an athlete can receive, the strict Covid-19 regulations that will be in place represent an indisputable blight on the event’s excitement.
“When you remove spectators and the ability for friends and family to come and support you and you remove the interactions that happen in the Athletes’ Village, it reduces the Paralympic games down to a competition,” Grewe said. “And like I always say, (the Paralympics are) so much bigger than just a competition. I’m still super excited, but so much of what made Rio so special is gone now.”
Ultimately, however, Grewe is grateful that the games are taking place at all.
“For a few years now, Tokyo has been the goal,” Grewe said. “It’s been hard fighting burnout during the pandemic. There were a lot of times over the past year where I hated high jump, where it felt like a job, because I didn’t know when I’d get to compete again.”
Tokyo represents the ideal opportunity for Grewe to fill in seemingly the only gap left in his glittering athletic resume — a Paralympic gold medal. If he jumps anywhere near his world record of 1.90 meters, there are very few potential challengers around the world who could pose a threat. But a number of obstacles still remain for Grewe to obtain that final puzzle piece.
This month, Grewe will be moving to Ann Arbor to begin his first year of medical school at Michigan, forcing him to upend his training routine and balance a significant amount of added stress before the Paralympic opening ceremonies on August 24th.
“It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to figure out how I’m going to continue training in Ann Arbor,” Grewe said. “It’s going to be very difficult to train as I normally would train. I don’t have my class schedule, I don’t know where I’m going to be training, and I don’t know who I’m going to be training with. I would hope that if I reached out to the track and field team and told them the circumstances, they would be more than happy to share their facilities.”
Despite the uncertainty that lays ahead, Grewe is confident that things will work themselves out.
“I’m not too worried about it all,” Grewe said. “I just recently looked at the world rankings, and right now, the next best is 10 centimeters less. If I jump 1.90 meters plus, which I’ve done for Notre Dame consistently, then that puts me in a really good spot to definitely medal and, I think, win gold.”