Crafting smiles and setting records on the track: An alumnus’s unique dual-pursuit

Leo Merle is months away from receiving his doctorate in dental surgery and is a candidate to represent Team USA at the 2024 Paris Paralympics

Leo Merle (Rachel Carson ’20, mollecular, cellular, and developmental biology) at the Parapan American Games.
Leo Merle running for UC Santa Cruz as a student.

Leo Merle is on the fast track to achieving two significant life goals. One, graduate from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry with a doctorate of dental surgery (DDS). Two, be the first American with cerebral palsy to run the 1,500-meter race in less than four minutes. 

With a recent gold medal win for Team USA at the Parapan American Games, making him a candidate for the 2024 Paris Paralympic stage, and a graduation date set in May 2024, Merle is down to the wire. 

“May 10, 2024, I will officially go from no doctor title to doctor title,” says Merle. “So I’ll enjoy that for a bit, bask in it, and then for three months entirely focus on running. I have a great chance to make the US team to go represent the US in Paris, and I want to give myself the maximum chance to do that.”

Merle graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2020 with a B.S. in molecular, cellular, and developmental (MCD) biology and a rekindled passion for running. He had been running since the 6th grade, but when it came time to attend college, continuing the sport competitively wasn’t his biggest priority. He sought out UCSC for its reputation in the biological sciences and its unique campus. 

“The most important thing for me then was a good biology program and something coastal; those were the two big things. Santa Cruz really called my name.” 

Eventually, a connection between his high school coaches and a former UCSC track coach led Merle to try out for the university’s track team. 

As an athlete and MCD bio student, Merle recalls having consistent 15-hour days, waking up at 6:30 a.m. for track practice, having a day full of classes, labs, and studying, and then getting home around 9:30 p.m.

It wasn’t until he came across a series of YouTube videos of para-athletic track races from the 2012 London Paralympics Games that Merle realized he could potentially compete in a class with other athletes that had a similar level of cerebral palsy as he does. 

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, some of these guys are running like I do,’ and then I totally fell down this rabbit hole of researching the whole thing,” Merle recalled. “I was looking at the US Para Athletics, the Paralympics, and the World Para Athletic Committee, and I realized this seems reasonable; this doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea.”

For fairness in para-sport, athletes are placed in classifications of like-ability to ensure a level playing field and strong competition. These classifications include wheelchair users, short stature, amputee’s, visual, mental and physical impairment. Merle and his level of cerebral palsy place him under the physical impairment category as part of a classification of high functioning individuals with traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and/or cerebral palsy (CP).

In his third year at Santa Cruz, Merle competed in his first-ever competition as a para-athlete in the 2019 U23 U.S. Nationals. At this event he went on to set the U23 U.S. record for the 5K among T38 athletes, that high functioning TBI/CP classification.

Natalie Marquardt, a former teammate of Merle at UCSC and a current assistant track coach, says the team is always excited to hear about Merle’s pursuits. 

“Leo is a really great representative of our track program,” Marquardt said. “Every time he does something incredible, we’re all very proud of him.” 

If Merle can hit his current goal—being the first American with cerebral palsy to run the 1,500-meter race in less than four minutes—he will set another national record and become the second individual with cerebral palsy in the world to do so. 

Path to dentistry 

Merle grew up in Folsom, California, with an affinity for the arts. He played multiple instruments, participated in musicals, painted, and sculpted with clay. When he was in high school, he began to grow a deeper passion for the sciences, and biology in particular. Merle didn’t always know that he wanted to pursue dentistry, but after a summer shadowing a dentist in his hometown, Merle noticed the similarities between the field and art. 

“Art has always been a cornerstone growing up and was a big part of my upbringing along with science,” Merle said. “And so, once I found dentistry, it was this interesting hybrid between science and art. Cavities need to be filled, people want their teeth to look different, or they want them bleached,. And so it felt like this nice combination of treating somebody as a medical professional and allowing the artist inside to flair a little bit.” 

After graduating from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry and committing the following three months to running, Merle plans to transition into becoming a dental professional. He wants to specialize in endodontics and will be a root canal specialist.

“Nearly 65 percent of dental emergencies are tooth pain. So, this is the kind of field of dentistry where you can potentially solve that. I would be able to treat the large majority of those emergencies that come in through the door.”

Merle plans to return to California and says Santa Cruz will always hold a special place in his heart—especially the view of the Monterey Bay from the UCSC campus. 

“We’d wake up in the morning, go up to the field house, and the sun was coming over the horizon, illuminating the bay. You can see the Monterey mountains, and everything was pristinely clear on some of those mornings, and you could see the reflection of the light hitting the ocean sometimes. It was an absolutely pristine orange glow. It’s completely locked in my brain.”