Achievements & Awards Uncategorized

U-M Dental Student Wins Gold Medal in Parapan American Games6 min read

December 12, 2023

U-M Dental Student Wins Gold Medal in Parapan American Games6 min read

Leo Merle unfurls the American flag after winning the 1,500-meter run at the 2023 Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 21. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto/U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee)

Ann Arbor, Mich., Dec. 12, 2023 – Fourth-year University of Michigan School of Dentistry student Leo Merle has added a world title to his resume.

Merle recently returned from Santiago, Chile, where he took first place and the gold medal for Team USA in the 1,500-meter run at the 2023 Parapan American Games.

The Parapan games, for para athletes, were held from Nov. 17-26, following the month-long Pan American Games. The Parapan Am Games brought together about 2,000 para athletes from 31 countries across the Americas to complete in 17 sports.

Merle competes in a para track category called Class T38, which includes athletes with limitations of movement in their legs and lower torso, many of whom, like Merle, have disabilities caused by cerebral palsy.

Merle led the 1,500 meters from start to finish, overcoming a steady headwind in the three times runners moved down the backstretch during the 3.75 laps of the race. It was his first international win, despite his finish time of 4:12.62 being about six seconds slower than his U.S. record of 4:06.13 that he set in Paris, France, in July when he finished fourth during the Para World Championships.

Leo Merle leads another runner during the 1,500 meters in Santiago. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto/U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee)

The two races this year are part of a qualifying process that could lead to Merle competing in the Paralympics that immediately follow the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris next August. Another part of the process comes in March when he competes in trials in California for the 2024 Para World Championships in Kobe, Japan, in May. Then in July trials are held for the U.S. Paralympics team. The make-up of the Paralympic team is based on factors beyond just the fastest times of the competitors, including how they’ve fared in other international competitions, so Merle’s success in Santiago and Paris this year will help his standing.

After about 24 hours of travel time from Detroit to Atlanta to Santiago, Merle had only four days before his race on Nov. 21 to get settled into the U.S. team’s accommodations and acclimate to the warmer temperatures in the southern hemisphere this time of year. The transition proved to be nothing to worry about. Merle took the lead immediately in the first steps of the race and was never passed. Leading is usually a risky strategy because other runners benefit by drafting behind the leader, which was especially an advantage in this race given the steady wind in the backstretch. But Merle said he decided to retain the lead despite the wind because he knew the previous times of the other runners and felt he could hold them off when he picked up the pace during the usual sprint to the finish line. Watching two large television monitors in the stadium as he ran, he realized his plan was working as the other runners faded slightly. He won by one second, over a runner from Canada, with a Colombian finishing third.

Leo Merle on the podium in Santiago during the playing of the American National Anthem for his 1st-place finish. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto/U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee)

Merle said winning a race on the world stage is a strange experience that is hard to grasp at first. It is made more surreal by standing on a podium as the National Anthem is played. “At first after the race, you realize nobody beat you. I was the fastest today. I won. You are in this weird shell-shock,” he said. “And then you get on the podium. I’ve heard the National Anthem so many times at so many places – football games, baseball games. But there has never been once in my life where the National Anthem was played because of what I did. It is like, wow, this is a weird feeling. The only reason they are playing it is because of what I did today. That’s something special.”

Leo Merle with his Parapan American Games gold medal. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto/U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee)

Merle’s athletic accomplishments are remarkable because it has been only about five years since he discovered the para athletics arena, between his third and fourth years of college. He had run track on his high school and college teams because he enjoyed it and it was a way to retain his flexibility, but he had never been among the leading runners on those teams. Once he discovered para athletics and learned that he qualified because of his cerebral palsy disability, it has been a fast track to success.

“The whiplash you get from a hard right turn on the path of life is kind of wild,” he said. “To go from learning that I have a disability that maybe classifies for para athletics, to here I am on the podium. When you step back and think about it, it is a crazy path.”


More about Leo Merle’s para athletics journey and his dental school education were detailed in this related story on the School of Dentistry website after he set the U.S. record in the 1,500-meter run at the Para World Championships in Paris in July.


The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral healthcare education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at:  Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at, or (734) 615-1971.