(L) Photo courtesy of CSUN Athletics  (R) M. Terry / SFVS 

Best in the Big West — Cross country runner Michael Merchan, a senior, is one of the elite competitors in the conference.

As a small boy growing up in the community of Caimito near San Juan, Puerto Rico, a Commonwealth U.S. territory, Michael Merchan learned early that his destiny would be in his hands.

His father Jeffrey Merchan— who had full custody of Michael and his older brother Bryan after separating from their mother Gabriela Abreu (who was not married to Jeffrey) — wouldn’t help him with his homework. “He’d tell me ‘if you go to school, you’re going for yourself. It’s not gonna benefit me, your neighbor — it’s gonna benefit you. And if you don’t get good grades, you’re just gonna stay in the same place.’ It was tough love but it was his way,” Merchan said.

He also discovered he had a knack for distance running, winning youth age group championships in Puerto Rico. That made Merchan even more eager to see what else was out there.

“In Puerto Rico there’s this saying that schools in the (continental) U.S. are better. They always plugged that in my mind that schools in the U.S. are better,” Merchan said. “So since I started running in the fifth grade, the main goal was to train good enough and have the times good enough to come to the U.S.

“I didn’t know how it was gonna happen, I didn’t know what the path was, but it was the goal ever since I started running.”

That goal can reach a crescendo in this, his senior season at Cal State University Northridge.

Merchan, 21, has developed into one of the elite cross country runners in the Big West Conference. “Easily one of the top five,” according to his coach Lawrence Johnson. The 5-11 Merchan has run in 17 meets for the Matadors this season. He has been CSUN’s top finisher in six of those races.

At the recent UC Riverside Invitational this past weekend. Merchan ran the 8K course in 24:32.7 to lead the Matadors to a 13th place finish (out of 21 teams). His time was the best among the Big West entrants. For his effort, Merchan was named the co-Big West Athlete of the Week for men’s cross country (along with UC Santa Barbara sophomore Nick Randazzo).

Merchan is the first Matador men’s cross country student-athlete to earn the award since it was established in 2001.

“I’ve watched him develop from his freshman year, as a student athlete and as a young man,” said Johnson, whose almost 20-year coaching career has included teams at Arkansas, Virginia Tech and Clemson universities. “He’s a very impressive guy; he works really hard at what he does, and is totally committed to the sport of track and cross country. He has a great imagination and work ethic. He is a huge asset to the program.

“Mike is bit of a quiet guy. He leads by example. He doesn’t say much, but when he does speak he is very impactful. The old and young guys here respect him. And he’s organic, in that he does not try to be somebody he is not.”

Johnson’s right about that. Merchan, who is preparing to race for CSUN this weekend against Sacramento State at the Capital Cross Challenge meet in Sacramento, has come too far and overcome too much to be fake news.

He came to live with relatives in the United States in 2014, completing his senior prep year at Marshall High in Los Angeles. But he was still pretty much on his own, Merchan said. “I cooked everything for myself, took myself to school on the train…[butI I wanted to make that move.”

He got accepted to CSUN and made the varsity cross-country team. But his freshman and sophomore seasons were scuttled by stress fractures, one to this left leg and one to his right leg. Last year he was healthy. This year Merchan is showing everyone what he can do.

“If everything goes according to plan, this will be his best season,” Johnson said. “He wants to put CSUN on the map as it relates to distance running. I push him to challenge himself more and more, and he constantly meets the challenges.”

Running may be a passion, but it’s not Merchan’s only pursuit. A film major who plans to graduate in December 2019, Merchan envisions a career as a cinematographer. He’s already worked on student films and videos while in school.

Life still hasn’t always been easy or fair. Merchan said it was “very difficult” to be here in the US last year while Hurricane Maria was battering Puerto Rico. His grandmother Marta, who helped raise him along with his father, was injured and required surgery. But she was lucky, he said; electricity and running water were restored in her home.

“I know people who still don’t have either, and lost their homes,” Merchan said.

So he will continue to trust the process and the path he has laid out for himself. He will try and help lead the Matadors to the conference title. He will complete his education.

He will do something with any other opportunity that comes his way.

“I always tell myself ‘don’t be scared to give yourself high goals,” Merchan said. “In the process, you might not get to that highest goal, but you will get to a similar goal, or something close. But if you don’t target a high goal, you won’t be able to reach your potential.

“Even if your highest goal doesn’t happen, something will happen. Because everything happens for a reason.”