But the 16-year-old gymnast-turned-track star refused to let the attention distract her, using it instead to further fuel her dedication to master her craft.
That combination of athleticism, passion and work ethic made it possible for the sophomore to enjoy a season filled with achievement and success.
It also helped Merritt earn the honor of being recognized as the Orange County Register’s female athlete of the year.
“I knew that she was special and had the potential to be one of the best athletes in the nation,” Santa Margarita pole vault coach Mandie Rowell said. “She has proven that this year but is still so humble.”
Merritt, who turned to pole vaulting in sixth grade after years as a competitive gymnast, had her signature highlight at the renowned Arcadia Invitational in April.
With a packed crowd watching and the bar setting at 13 feet, 8 inches, Merritt sprinted down the run on her first attempt and vaulted herself over the bar. Grazing the bar ever so slightly on the way down caused it to flutter momentarily, but it stayed aloft.
Merritt’s clearance set a trio of significant records.
In addition to being a meet record, she became the national sophomore record holder, breaking the record of 13-7 set in 2008 by Morgann Leleux of New Iberia Catholic High in Louisiana.
She also became the county’s all-time record holder, breaking former Newport Harbor star Allison Stokke’s mark of 13-7 set in 2007.
Merritt is now tied for third place all time in state history and her clearance was the fourth best in the country this year.
“With the tailwind and the raised runway, it was really exciting,” Merritt recalled.
Merritt capped her record-breaking season by capturing her first state title earlier this month at the CIF State Track and Field Championships.
Santa Margarita coach Gil Garcia says Merritt, who also won the 100 meters at the Trinity League Finals this year, is going to continue to raise the bar in her sport.
“Through your coaching career, you don’t get kids like this all the time,” Garcia said. “She has like an Olympian-type determination already.”
As soon as the school year ended at Santa Margarita, Merritt planned to head to a pole-vaulting camp in Colorado.
She is looking for ways to improve her form and hoping that soon she can begin to clear 14 feet regularly.
Why is the 14-foot mark so important to her? The national record is 14-23/4.
Merritt aspires to shatter that mark before she leaves high school, hoping to set the record at 15 feet.
In the meantime, Merritt takes a look back now and then over all of her success. She appreciates how far she has progressed in a sport she knew nothing about just five years ago.
“It’s special to think of what track has done for me and how far I have come,” Merritt said.
“There is a lot of work that goes into it, but I love the sport.”