Merritt went on to add an NCAA championship, while competing for Tennessee, in 2006 and a world indoor title earlier this year to his list of achievements.
The 27-year old east Cobb product added an Olympic gold medal to that list on Wednesday when he won the men’s 110-meter hurdles at the Summer Olympic Games in London.
Merritt crossed the finish line with a personal-best time of 12.92 seconds — the fastest time in the world this year — to win the gold, while fellow American Jason Richardson (13.04) won the silver and Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment (13.12) took the bronze.
Merritt became the first U.S. athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in the 110 hurdles since 1996, when Allen Johnson claimed the gold in the Atlanta Games.
It was a successful Olympic debut, to say the least, for Merritt — who narrowly missed earning a trip to the 2008 Games in Beijing after finishing fourth in the 110 hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials that year.
“I am blessed to have an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games,” Merritt said. “So many people go to the Olympics and don’t win a medal while I won a gold medal in my first Olympics, so, I feel very blessed about that.”
Merritt was feeling positive about his chances in the finals after winning the first two rounds of the men’s 110 hurdles in convincing fashion — running 13.07 seconds in the first round on Tuesday and 12.94 seconds in the semifinals earlier on Wednesday.
“I felt good after the first two rounds,” Merritt said. “I did exactly what I needed to do.”
The 110 hurdles finals was all Merritt as he took the lead early in the race and maintained his advantage the rest of the way.
Meanwhile, 2008 Olympic champion Dayron Robles of Cuba saw his chances of repeating come to an end when he pulled up with an injured hamstring halfway through the race.
“I had a good start and from there, I did my normal routine,” Merritt said. “I remember hearing this noise during the race and then I saw Dayron Robles screaming and I realized that he was out of the race. Right after the final hurdle, I knew the race was mine and I just ran as hard as I could towards the finish line.”
The reality of Merritt’s achievement finally became clear to him at the awards ceremony, where he accepted his gold medal at the top of the podium and then listened to the Star Spangled Banner be played in his honor.
“It was an amazing experience to stand on that podium with my gold medal around my neck,” Merritt said. “I am very blessed to be able to have that moment.”
While waiting for his own competition, Merritt has sampled the Olympic atmosphere in London, taking in a number of events in the opening week.
“I’ve gone to see gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, ping pong (table tennis),” Merritt said. “It’s been great watching the other athletes and being a part of the whole Olympic experience.”
The Olympic gold medal is the crowning achievement of a breakthrough 2012 season for Merritt.
An adjustment in technique — shortening his steps between hurdles from eight to seven — as well as staying healthy after battling injuries the last few years have made the difference for Merritt as he won both the U.S. and world indoor championships in the 60-meter hurdles and the U.S. outdoor title in the 110 hurdles.
He has also run the five fastest times in the world in the 110 hurdles this season, running 12.93 seconds three times and 12.94 in the Olympic semifinals along with his 12.92 in the Olympic finals.
While Merritt is certainly celebrating his achievement, it won’t be long before he goes back to work as he looks ahead to a number of IAAF Diamond League meets that he will compete in this summer.
There is still one piece of unfinished business that he wants to take care of this summer — breaking the 110 hurdles world record of 12.87 seconds currently held by Robles.
“I’m getting closer and closer (to the world record) and hopefully, I can get it this summer,” Merritt said.
The Olympic gold medal that Merritt won in London may not be the only one he collects as he has his eyes set on earning a trip to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero to defend his 110 hurdles title.
“My goal is to make the team in Rio,” Merritt said. “I would have to qualify again, but I would like to have the opportunity to defend my title.”