Dog bite affects a legend in Merrill-Morin

Jan Merrill-Morin has run in Harkness State Park in Waterford thousands of times.

"When I'm home I go there. That's my place. I love the peace and quiet there," Merrill-Morin, the 1976 Olympian who now coaches cross country at Rutgers University, told me last week.

But that feeling of comfort and serenity was ruined Aug. 21 as she finished a 50-minute run.

That's when Merrill-Morin saw a woman about 50 meters away with a large dog that resembled a collie. The woman was looking away at something and Merrill-Morin saw that while the dog had on a leash, the woman was not holding it. Signs tell park users that dogs have to be leashed.

"I said, 'I'm in trouble,'" she recalled.

The dog bounded over to Merrill-Morin, jumped on her and began scratching and biting her legs. She suffered three bites, including one to the knee, and the blood running down her leg soon soaked her sock.

Merrill-Morin began yelling at the woman who said she would go to her car to get her cell phone and then return.

"She never came back," Merrill-Morin said.

That meant Merrill-Morin had no way of knowing if the dog had been vaccinated for rabies.

She hobbled back to her car and saw some people she knew, who along with the park ranger began searching for the woman with no success.

Merrill-Morin's husband took her to an out-patient clinic and then Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. What followed were a tetanus shot, antibiotics for an infected bite and a series of four rabies shots.

"They don't do them in your stomach anymore but they do hurt going in," she said. "But once it's over, it's over."

Merrill-Morin is back running again and last week ran at Harkness.

She said the time off has give her more energy now that she's back coaching and running.

"I was upset at that time but I'm not mad now. I've gotten over it," she said.

Still the attack has made an impact.

"I like dogs. But now I'm a little bit hesitant when I see one," she said.

For the woman whose dog bit Merill-Morin. Your dog didn't just bite any ordinary runner.

Merrill-Morin finished eighth in the 1,500 meters at the 1976 Olympics and won the silver medal at the 1981 World Cross Country Championships. A gold medalist at the 1975 and 1979 Pan Am Games, she won numerous national titles and is a former American record holder in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters. She is a former world-record holder in the indoor 3,000 and two-mile and outdoor 5,000. She also coached at Waterford High School and the Coast Guard Academy.

People who let their dogs run free in area parks seem to be more and more frequent. I see it all time at Bluff Point and Haley Farm state parks in Groton and the beaches of Westerly.

Despite the signs stating dogs are banned or must be on a leash, people ignore them. I guess it's just like the cell phone while driving law. Some people think it can't possibly apply to them; it must be meant for those other people. And when you remind them of the law if their dog tries to bite you, they get angry.

Two days after she was bitten, Merrill-Morin went back to the neighboring Seaside property and saw a woman with a large dog get out of her car without a leash. When she asked the woman if she had leash, the woman said no.

"It won't hurt anyone," she told Merrill-Morin.

Joe Wojtas is The Day's running columnist.

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