Paralympian Trenten Merrill Talks the 'Fire Inside' as He Competes in Tokyo (While Juggling a Modeling Career)

·5 min read
Trenten Merrill
Trenten Merrill

courtesy Trenten Merrill Trenten Merrill

"I'm hungry," Trenten Merrill says.

It's mid-July, some seven weeks before the Southern California native returns for his second Summer Paralympics to compete in track and field, this time in Tokyo.

Already he can't wait.

"I want to go out there and fight," he tells PEOPLE in an interview as he prepares to head to Japan. You can hear how he starts winding himself up: "It's like every day it's like this fire inside of me, fuel is being poured on slowly but surely and the fire's getting bigger and bigger and come competition day, I think that's when I'm going to be fully lit up."

Even as a boy, Merrill, 31, thought he would be a professional athlete. He was good at anything he picked up. Soccer, motocross.

He wanted to try track and field — he knew he was fast — when, at 14, he got into a wreck.

He was riding on a friend's dirt bike. A car hit them and, after surgery after surgery, doctors said Merrill's right leg should be amputated below the knee.

He recovered. Even so, it was hard for him, then, to imagine exactly what he would do.

"I didn't think I could do track and field after that," he says. "I didn't see the point of it."

At 20, and in college, Merrill learned about the Paralympics. He describes what happened next like this: He was invited to a running clinic and, when he arrived, he heard from God.

"This is part of the plans I have for you," Merrill, who is guided by his faith, says he felt God say. And he knew: This is where I belong.

Trenten Merrill
Trenten Merrill

Christian Petersen/Getty Trenten Merrill in June

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Trenten Merrill
Trenten Merrill

Diarmuid Greene/getty Trenten Merill in 2016

It wasn't the first time Merrill had felt this feeling. God's hand, he says, has moved often over his life. "The more I'm in tune with God and his presence in my life throughout the day, it just seems like my life is so much better."

He quotes Thessalonians, in the Bible: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing."

The first time he felt the Lord's presence was in the hospital after his car crash at 14. "I thought all my dreams and my future was just gone," he says. A friend's mom came to see him.

"She just started praying over me," Merrill says, "and that's when I felt God the most and I heard from him and he told me then and there that he had great plans for me. All the sudden I just felt peace from crying. All the sudden — like whoa, alright, I'm good."

"It was something that was really hard to maybe describe," Merrill says. "It was an intense feeling."

He felt it again at the running clinic as a young adult in college. So he stayed and got to work.

"For track and field, it didn't come easy for me so it made me love it more," he says. Which was part of the reward: "It was a constant. I had to work really, really hard and I still would fail."

Merrill, who competes using a prosthetic commonly called a blade, tried every track and field event and gravitated to the long jump and sprinting events. "Having a prosthetic and being able to run really fast is a truly incredible experience," he says.

He'll compete in both the men's long jump and the men's 200m in Tokyo, starting with long jump on Wednesday.

He feels he has what it takes, despite — or because of — the challenges.

"I wish I could say it was easy or pain-free, but being an amputee I've battled with injuries that a lot of other athletes don't battle with. And a lot of that comes from sprinting on a taller prosthetic or jumping with a prosthetic and the impact or force that translates from the blade into my body to propel me forward."

For all that Merrill is familiar with telling the most dramatic version of his life — the thrilling highs after the unnerving lows — he can just as quickly turn chatty and lighthearted. He loves to compete, especially for a crowd, and he's bummed to be without them while in Japan because of COVID-19.

Trenten Merrill
Trenten Merrill

courtesy Trenten Merrill Trenten Merrill

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But, a silver lining: He's on Team USA along with one of his best friends, fellow track and field athlete Hunter Woodhall. "We feed off each other really well and laugh all the time," Merrill says.

And he has another gig going outside of the Paralympics: He's also a model. When he's not competing, he's booking photo shoots and — he jokes — very much not trying to imitate Zoolander

Other people had suggested modeling to him, including his dad. "Finally this year I was like, Dude I need a side hustle. I need to make some more cash," he says.

While he notes "I'm no supermodel" and "I'm still learning," he's enjoyed the experience and taken time to do his homework — studying photos, thinking about how he presents on camera.

Modeling isn't a fluke: He sees himself running and jumping until 2028 and "as long as I'm competing as an athlete, I also want to be modeling."

Speaking with PEOPLE, Merrill says there are a few books he's been reading in the weeks before heading to Tokyo.

His Bible, first and foremost, and another called Relax and Win.

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Paralympics are airing on NBC.

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