Merry overcomes lupus to make NCAAs

Kersten Merry poses for a photo in the Ute Natitorium.–Brent Uberty Colby Patterson
Kersten Merry poses for a photo in the Ute Natatorium. Photo by Brent Uberty.

Kersten Merry poses for a photo in the Ute Natatorium. Photo by Brent Uberty.

As she waited to compete in the 10-meter platform dive at the Pac-12 Championships on Mar. 1, Kersten Merry realized it would be the final time she’d ever stand on that board, so she took the moment in.

Merry saw her mother in the stands and flashed a smile. Then she told a foe from UCLA to smile and enjoy every second of her college experience. As she walked to the end of the platform, she spotted her teammates, pointed at them and mouthed, “This is for you.” Then she flashed the “U.”

As her dive began, Merry knew it was going to be a good one, and a smile spread across her face as she came up out of the water. The dive helped Merry take third place at the conference championships, and now, three weeks later, she will be representing Utah at the NCAA Women’s Championships.

While Merry’s accomplishment is impressive under any circumstance, it’s especially sweet for an athlete who has dealt with the effects of a life-changing disease for nearly a decade.

A gymnast growing up in Edmonton, Alberta, Merry switched to diving in her early teens, quickly falling in love with the sport. However, about a year later, in 2005, she began to tire easily. Her hair started to fall out, unaccounted-for bruises began to appear on her body and sores suddenly formed in her mouth. She had trouble even closing her hands some mornings and would rapidly gain weight, then lose it, only to have it come back again.

Merry and her family were baffled, and conjectures about what could be wrong ran the gamut from burnout because of gymnastics to leukemia. Over the next year, she underwent seemingly endless medical tests and was ultimately diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease than can cause a wide range of negative effects from tissue damage to organ failure. Fortunately for Merry, her disease is on the less-serious end of the spectrum compared to many others who are plagued by it.

Nevertheless, learning to cope with it was incredibly challenging.

“We didn’t really know what it was or what to do or how it was going to go,” she said.

One of the major decisions Merry had to face was whether or not to treat her incurable disease with steroids, which often severely hamper a person’s ability to participate in physical activity. She wanted to be involved in athletics during her high school years, so she decided against taking the medication long-term. Soon, however, she had to cut back on activity because her body was having a hard time keeping up.

As Merry’s high school years went on, she went into a tailspin and her grades suffered. She would quit diving for long stretches at a time and was often limited to practicing once a week. She was supposed to graduate from high school in 2008 but didn’t receive her diploma until 2010.

During this difficult time, one person who wound up serving as a beacon of light was Utah diving coach Richard Marschner, who was recruiting Merry to come to Salt Lake City. Merry initially rejected Marschner’s offers, but after realizing the low point she was at in her life, she emailed him to see if he was still interested in having her join the Utes. He was, and she came to Utah prior to the 2011-2012 campaign and redshirted.

A caveat to the situation was that since it took longer for Merry to graduate from high school than expected, her collegiate eligibility was reduced. After her redshirt season, she was left with only two years to compete.

“Richard still wanted me even if I could only have two years of eligibility,” she said. “He just had so much belief in me. Besides my parents, of course, I’ve never had any person on this earth believe in me as much as he did.”

As far as Marschner was concerned, he was interested in bringing Merry on as an athlete who he felt had talent that just needed to be coached in order to make her a special diver.

“You could just see that she had the ability and the strength to do the dives,” he said. “She hadn’t had a great amount of direction or training up to that point. The natural ability was there. It was just kind of focusing that ability and setting a goal and moving toward it.”

Unbeknownst to Marschner was the fact that Merry was battling lupus. She was hesitant to talk about it during the recruiting process, but she made doctors, coaches and her teammates aware of it once she came to the U. Health problems arose during Merry’s first semester in Salt Lake City, starting a long string of challenges she’s faced in her time as a Ute.

After redshirting her first season in Marschner’s fold, Merry was primed to compete in the 2012-2013 campaign but missed the first meet of the year because of illness. She went on to be named an alternate in the NCAA Diving Championships.

Health problems continued to plague Merry at the outset of this season, as she hurt her hand in October and had to compete with a cast for a month. Additionally, there are days she is unable to practice because of pain, and she has learned it is good for her to slow down at times, but the desire to achieve the goals she set as a freshman has kept the senior motivated.

When she first came to the U, Merry wrote down that she wanted to medal at the Pac-12 Championships, qualify for NCAAs, break a school record and compete for Canada internationally. Merry has broken the Utah record on the 10-meter platform, took third at the conference championships and has now qualified for the NCAA Championships. In May, she’ll compete for an opportunity to represent Canada on the international stage.

“It’s really cool to see her actually believe in herself now,” Marschner said. “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve seen it for a long time, believed in her for a long time. Other coaches, other divers have known that she has the ability and known that she can do this … she just realized the potential in herself and believed in herself and that’s really what kind of has turned the corner for her the past month or so. It’s been fun to watch that.”

Her parents Steve and Laura agree.

“Everything came together,” Steve Merry said. “We always knew she had it in her … it all added up. She always had it there and because of her hard work and the work of others to get her here, that’s why she’s here. It’s her doing, with the help of the right people.”

Though many of Merry’s accomplishments have been individual, the support she’s gained from her team during her time with the Utes is what she values most about her collegiate career, and it’s one of the main factors that has helped her transform from a struggling teen to an outgoing 23-year-old who will be on the NCAA’s biggest stage this week in Minnesota with eight of her teammates.

“If you’re not gonna be happy, why do it?” she said. “You gotta have fun. That’s what I try to tell the freshmen. ‘Have fun.’ You’re not gonna remember in 10 years if you got a certain score or if you missed a dive, but you’re gonna remember the people you’ve met, the friends you’ve made, the laughs and the memories.”

r.mcdonald@chronicle.utah.edu