Courtesy of Grayson Buning.

Earlier this month, Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness (ASAF) program scored a significant addition to their ranks with the news that track and field athlete and 2021 U.S. Paralympic team hopeful Leo Merle would be joining the team. 

Merle will be the second internationally competitive track and field athlete to join the program, the first being the decorated Cathryn Gray. Now, with two elite athletes representing the track and field arm of the program, it’s seemingly only a matter of time before the accolades follow.

Merle arrives with a considerable reputation. He’s the current U23 national record holder in the 5k for his para-athletic classification with a time of 16:58.

“I have times that are faster than that, but because I wasn’t declared a para-athlete just yet, they don’t count,” Merle said. “I don’t have any qualms with that, but I know I can run faster.”

Despite the fact that he’s now in contention for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team this summer, Merle started competitive running relatively late. Only in his junior year of high school did Merle really begin to take running seriously. 

Luckily, Merle is an adept learner. As a teenager, he picked up competitive shooting after posting a perfect score on the very first occasion he held a shotgun. Within a few years, he was competing at international competitions, being coached by a world champion and looking into potential Olympic opportunities for 2016. 

Ultimately, Merle chose to drop competitive shooting to focus on his academics and running. However, the pace at which Merle became an elite competitor at the sport is a testament to his intelligence, diligence and overall athletic ability.

After graduating from high school, Merle enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz in his native state of California. There, he competed as a Division III track and field athlete for four years, participating in countless events and posting competitive times.

However, one thing set him apart from his competitors — Merle has cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects mobility, posture and balance. 

“I didn’t know about the broad spectrum of para-athletics until my junior year (of college) when I started doing the research and signing up for nationals and whatnot,” Merle told The Daily. “I didn’t have any special accommodations and I didn’t really think anything of it.”

In 2019, as a college junior, Merle competed in Minnesota at the U23 U.S. Nationals. There, he had his first-ever physical evaluation for classification as a para-athlete. 

“As I was letting them know what I was running for the 15k and the 5k, they kind of just stopped and were like, ‘Okay, there’s some people you should start talking to to get more information about (para-)athletics,’ ” Merle said. 

At that very same competition, his first as a para-athlete, Merle went on to set the U23 national record for the 5k among T-38 (a disability sport classification for those with cerebral palsy) athletes. 

“I didn’t realize the actual speed that I had,” Merle said. 

Once taken into the fold of para-athletics, Merle set his sights on qualification for the U.S. Paralympic Team that will compete in Tokyo this summer. Merle is in constant contact with his coach from the U.S. Paralympic Team, who prescribes his training regimen and modifies it based on how Merle is feeling and progressing. 

As one would expect, training for this once-in-a-lifetime event hasn’t come without obstacles. In January, Merle slipped on an ice patch while leaving the library one night. While falling, Merle tweaked a muscle that kept him from running for almost two months. 

“I was so mad,” Merle said. “This was when I was supposed to be ramping up, not sitting on a stationary bike. I was thinking that if this really affects my ability to race the time I need to race, that’s really messed up.” 

In some ways, however, the injury was a blessing in disguise for Merle. In a visit with a Michigan Physical Therapist, Merle was introduced to and given the contact information for the ASAF program. 

“One of the things that she mentioned that I’ve always had a fascination with and wanted to do was expanding education about adaptive sports and physical disabilities for athletes and people in general,” Merle said. “I’d be bummed if I didn’t make the U.S. team for the Paralympics, but at the end of the day, the larger impact I want to have is to extend that invitation.”

In addition to the injury setback, Merle has had a lot on his plate while training for Tokyo — Merle is the president of his first-year dental school class in the Michigan School of Dentistry.

“It’s definitely a lot of time management,” Merle said. “As of right now, I would say that I’ve been doing a pretty good job of it. The one thing that I have to keep in mind first and foremost is that school is priority number one.”

The Paralympic trials are in June, where Merle will finally find out whether his many months of training have earned him a seat on the plane to Tokyo. Admittedly, Merle describes, there’s work to be done before then if he’s to be selected. 

Historically, Merle is a distance runner, competing in events like the 5k, 8k and 10k. However, for the T-38 physical classification, the longest distance event available to him to compete in at the Paralympics is the 1500 meter.

“It’s a pretty large switch for me compared to some other athletes who have already been doing this,” Merle said. “I’ve had to start doing a lot more weightlifting and a lot more speed work which I haven’t really done.”

Despite having to significantly transform his running style, Merle is already running times nearly 30 seconds faster than the Paralympic standard for the 1500 meter of 4:45, with a personal best of 4:19. However, to meet the standards specific to the U.S. team, Merle will have to cut a further seven seconds off that time in order to be at the threshold. Ultimately, Merle aims to have a personal best of around 4:10 by the time June rolls around. 

“I’ll need to cut about a handful of seconds per race, which sounds impossible,” Merle said. “But from when I ran my personal best, I’ve gotten a lot stronger, I’ve gotten a little bit older so I’ve had a little bit more muscle development, so my body is going to be able to respond much more quickly.”

Going forward, Merle’s role as part of the ASAF program will be twofold. 

Given his potential status as a Paralympian, the hope is that by joining ASAF, Merle will bring notoriety and attention to the program. At races and competitions, Merle will now compete under the banner of Michigan ASAF and wear program-branded gear. In turn, ASAF will support the costs of Merle’s registration and travel to and from events. 

“We want to make it clear that hey, we’re brand new, but we still have people that are world-class at what they do,” Merle said.

Additionally, those within the program believe that the addition of Merle will make it clear to Michigan that ASAF and the strong foundation it has built represents an opportunity for the University to support the program and establish itself as a leader in adaptive sports.

“With Leo joining the program we now have a roster of accomplished athletes who have bright futures ahead of them,” Erik Robeznieks, Michigan ASAF Program Manager, said. “It would be a missed opportunity if these athletes didn’t get the support, access and opportunity that is afforded to able-bodied athletes at the institution.”

Robeznieks cites a plaque commemorating Michigan Olympians that hangs in the Michigan Varsity Track and Field Center as an embodiment of his hopes for how Michigan should back ASAF: 

“Given the caliber of athletes in our program, and with support from all levels of the system, we have the opportunity to be leaders and the best,” Robeznieks said. “For the University of Michigan, it is difficult to conceive of better timing to start supporting ‘Michigan Olympians and Paralympians.’ ”

In addition to competing under the banner of Michigan ASAF, Merle will work with program staff and Services for Students with Disabilities at Michigan to provide and expand education about adaptive sports to students and community members. For Merle, this role is the more significant of the two.

“You can inspire a lot of people by being an athlete who competes at the Olympics or Paralympics,” Merle said. “But by making a local impact and expanding education, those people can then go on to wherever they go in their lives to leave an impact that is equal to or greater than mine.”

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