Kyle Merber and Ethan Shaw, Photo By: me.milesplit.com
When Kyle Merber was in elementary school, he told his mother that he wanted to be an Olympic runner. By sixth grade, Merber was running competitively and training with a local high school sprint coach on weekends. “I would get pulled on by a bungee cord, and go twice as fast as a sixth grader ever should,” he described the workouts which he believes provided him with an explosive burst at an early age.
In high school, the Long Island native began to attain marks which made a collegiate running career a realistic possibility. As a senior, he ran the mile in 4:12. He won state in cross country in the 5k and both indoor and outdoor track in the mile. At the prestigious Milrose Games, held in Madison Square Garden, he raced among the best athletes in the country and finished first with a time of 4:13.87.
Despite a highly-successful high school career, Merber decided to attend Columbia University, where he wouldn't receive an athletic scholarship. "I was told by the coaches, ‘Look, we don’t have any scholarships or anything but we really, really want you,’” he said, “and I wanted to come here and be a part of something that where I wasn’t just another athlete to these coaches or this team but really a part of it and embraced by a family atmosphere.”
While many young athletes struggle in the transition to college, he thrived. Once at Columbia, Merber began to shatter his own best times. As a freshman, he ran the mile in 4:05--seven seconds faster than the previous year. "A lot of people are worried about burning out in college and can you make this transition to this whole new level of running,” Merber said. “I immediately felt at home at Columbia with the guys and the coaches. It made the transition really easy."
In his sophomore campaign, Merber began to truly flash signs that he was poised to become an elite runner. In March 2010, he broke the four-minute mile mark, posting a 3:58.5. It was the seventh fastest mile time in the entire nation and made Merber only the second athlete in Ivy League history to break four minutes in the indoor mile.
In August 2010, a few days prior to training camp at Columbia University, Merber stepped on a shard of glass during a run that cut through his shoe and nicked his flexor tendon. Originally, the injury was expected to heal in a few weeks, but weeks turned into months and Merber was still in pain. Eventually, he missed all three seasons of his junior year--cross country, indoor and outdoor track. A seemingly minor injury began to appear capable of derailing his entire running career.
“There were so many days when I was on the 10th floor of this building that I live in riding on a bike or an elliptical and I could just see my teammates running into Central Park, and I’m just thinking, like, they’re doing it without me. I need to get back out there,” Merber said.
Finally, Merber tried a regenerative treatment in which blood plasma is enriched with platelets and injected into a wound. Superstars Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez have also been recipients of the controversial procedure. After two rounds of the treatment and six weeks in a boot cast, Merber was finally pain free.
While he may have recovered physically, the injury had shaken his self-confidence. Last summer, Merber and a few running friends rented a cottage in Maine. For over two months, Merber ran 85 miles a week, including runs as long as eighteen miles on the weekends. He grew stronger each day and finally regained both his form and confidence.
Merber returned to Columbia and enjoyed a stellar senior campaign. However, few could have anticipated the incredible exclamation mark that he would place at the end of his collegiate career. Last week, at Swarthmore College's Last Chance Meet, he set the all-time collegiate record for an American in the 1,500 meter run with a 3:35.59 time. The remarkable achievement was attained against a predominantly professional field of athletes, many of whom were attempting to gain an Olympic qualifying mark. In a sport where improvement is measured in tenths of a second, the mark smashed Merber's personal best in the event by an astonishing ten seconds.
Over a decade since Merber told his mother his Olympic dream, he still hasn't lost sight of the goal. “2016,” he says. After the young star's remarkable comeback from injury to attain the status of an elite runner, few will count him out.