New Cars, Cooking Lessons and All the Lego You Can Buy: What It’s Like to Go Pro in Track & Field as a Teenager
By Jonathan Gault
November 14, 2016
Noah Lyles has it pretty good for a 19-year-old. After running 20.09 to break the 200-meter high school national record and finish fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July, Lyles inked a pro contract with adidas and moved to Clermont, Fla., to train under Lance Brauman. So what does he do with his newfound wealth? Buy a big flat-screen TV? Perhaps a few dozen pairs of sneakers?
“I love Legos,” Lyles said. “I’m actually putting together a whole Lego city.”
Lyles and his brother Josephus, 18, who ran 20.76 (200) and 45.46 (400) at age 16 and also turned pro this summer, moved around a lot as kids. Noah would construct small Lego cities but inevitably would have to demolish them when the family packed up for a new town. Now that he has his own place (he and Josephus share an apartment in Clermont), he’s starting a new development. The first building: a $250 theater set. He’s since bought five more Lego sets and has plans to visit Legoland Florida in Winter Haven, an hour’s drive away.
A few years ago, Lyles’ situation would have been unique, but more and more U.S. high schoolers are bypassing the NCAA system to turn professional early. After one year of college, Alan Webb went pro in 2002. A year later, Allyson Felix was the first prominent U.S. track athlete to bypass NCAA competition entirely, but the current trend really began with 800-meter star Ajee Wilson, who turned pro in January 2013. Since then middle distance runners Mary Cain, Alexa Efraimson and Drew Hunter, sprinters Kaylin Whitney and Candace Hill and high jumper Vashti Cunningham have all followed a similar path.
So why now?
First, the money. Track and field is a fully-professional sport now (the IAAF didn’t allow professional athletes until 1982, and prize money at Worlds wasn’t introduced until 1997) and there’s more money available than ever before due to increased competition between an ever-growing number of shoe companies in track and field. Second, there has been a great deal of teenage talent coming of age of late.
Quite simply, for most of the past two decades, there were very few American high schoolers good enough to earn professional contracts. When Cain entered high school in 2010, the national high school record in the 1500 was 4:14.50. By the time Cain graduated in 2014, she had won two USATF indoor titles, made a World Championship final and knocked almost 10 seconds off the high school record. Cunningham won the World Indoor title in March of her senior year. Hill was the first high school girl to break 11 seconds in the 100 meters, and she did it as a sophomore. For future pros, the NCAA serves as a development system, but athletes such as Cain, Cunningham and Hill were already world-class. And in a sport where sponsor money is hard to come by, it makes financial sense to grab as much as you can as early as possible. If Cain were turning pro now instead of three years ago, she’d be worth far less on the open market.
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While the benefits of a contract are obvious ($$$), turning professional is a big decision followed by lots of smaller decisions. Do I stick with the same coach? Relocate or stay with mom and dad? How much can I spend on luxuries? And what’s the deal with taxes? Athletes have agents to assist in those areas, but it also helps to have a “momager” — the title the Lyles bestowed upon their mother, Keisha Caine.
“I basically manage everything they do, from their eating, their doctor’s appointments, rehab if they need to go to rehab, I help with their schedule, I coordinate conference calls between their medical staff and their coaching staff,” said Caine, who is a social worker in Washington, D.C., when she’s not wearing her momager hat. “I work with their CPA now, I formed their LLC, I go check on them monthly where they live to make sure that everything is okay, I remind them of the little things, make sure you update your USADA app, anything and everything that has to do with running…I really don’t know how anybody can do this without a manager, whether it’s your mom, whether you hire a professional person because there’s so many distractions. They don’t have time to sit there and form an LLC. They don’t even understand what that is.”
Perhaps the biggest area in which Caine helps is the brothers’ finances. She’s read all the stories about NFL and NBA players going broke and doesn’t want her boys to wind up in the same situation. She handles their bills and has put Noah and Josephus on a budget, allowing them a couple hundred dollars every other week. When they want more than that, they have to go through mom, which is what happened when Noah said he wanted to buy a car.
…..What type of wheels are appropriate?…..
Caine and Noah spent a month visiting dealerships and talking to their CPA about which type of car would offer the best tax deduction, which they determined to be an SUV. But Noah had his heart set on a 2017 BMW 430i convertible, a car that retails from $50,300.
“He told me the car that he wanted and I said oh,” Caine said.
It was a very tough decision. So she dragged her brother, Rahsaan, to the dealership, and laid out the pros and cons.
“You know, there’s gonna be some really hard days in practice,” he told her. “They don’t ask you for much, and it fits in the budget. Just let them get the car.”
So Caine relented, but even after Noah bought it, she agonized over the decision. When she got home from the dealership, she cried. Caine wanted to ensure she was upholding her fiduciary duty to the boys. She was also worried about the optics.
“They’re so young,” Caine said. “And I don’t want people to think they, you know, stole this car. Even people at the dealership were like ‘That young boy bought that car?'”
It wasn’t until one of Caine’s friends called her that night that her mind was finally at ease.
“She said, ‘Keisha, what did the boys do as soon as they got the car?’ And I said ‘They went to track practice.’ And she said, ‘Okay it’s 10:00 at night right now, they just bought the car today, where are they?’ I said ‘They’re in the bed.’ And she said ‘They’re in the bed and they have a new car and they went to track practice. I think they’ll be okay.'”
More than anything, Caine wanted the boys to understand how money management works. Because Noah splurged on the car, they decided to only furnish part of the boys’ apartment, not because they couldn’t afford it but because Caine wants them to be wise with their money. Ironically, Noah doesn’t even have his driver’s license yet (he plans to get it soon), so Josephus has been the one driving the boys around town.
That wasn’t the only car they bought. For years, Rashawn Jackson, their high school coach, would schlep them around to practices and meets in a beat-up old Mitsubishi. The windows were broken, and the interior of one of the doors was stripped. Two months before the Olympic Trials, Jackson got in an accident and the car was totaled. Noah and Josephus had vowed since freshman year that they would buy him a car when they turned pro (yes, they were that confident in their abilities). So in October, they did: a 2004 Nissan Altima.
“He didn’t cry at the school because he’s also a football coach and he was around the football team but he said his wife called him a sissy because he was crying at home,” Noah said.
Like the Lyles brothers, 19-year-old Donavan Brazier, who turned pro after his freshman year at Texas A&M, bought a car shortly after signing his contract: a 2016 Chevy Silverado. And like the Lyles, his mother, Jennifer Pennington, doubles as his “momager,” though he also employs an accountant and a financial manager.
“[I tell him] you need to live like a college student and he is very good about doing that,” Pennington said. “So I think he’ll be okay. He splurged on his truck and, of course, he can do that. He’s more than able to do that. Just don’t spend it all. He asks a lot of questions, he doesn’t just go spend his money. If it’s any sort of big purchase, he’ll call and ask, not so much for permission but more for guidance and advice.”
Hill turned pro earlier than both the Lyles and Brazier — after her sophomore year of high school– and as a result, it’s harder for Hill, now a senior, to access the money from her 10-year contract with Asics. Hill’s parents have full control over her account and said that she can assume control of the money once her contract is up at age 26 as long as she has completed three years of college. Hill, whose first purchase as a pro was a pair of Beats headphones, is happy with that plan. She already has a car, a 2005 Mazda 5, and isn’t looking to replace it anytime soon.
“I’m acting as if I didn’t have money,” Hill said. “I’ll splurge here and there but I just want to invest it and keep it as much as possible for as long as possible. I didn’t want to have a lot of money and go crazy and then not have any when I’m 30 or something when I really, really need it.”
…..Location, location, location…..
Money is just one new variable teenage pros have to manage. They also have to decide where to train and who to train under, and unlike buying a car, this decision can have a major impact on their professional careers. For Cain and Efraimson (who signed at the start of their senior year of HS) and Hill, the where was simple: all three elected to stay at home until they graduated high school. Cain stayed with the coaches she had been working with when she signed her contract (Alberto Salazar and John Henwood; last month, Cain announced Henwood is now her sole coach), as did Efraimson (Mike Hickey). Hill said Asics told her they wanted a coach with experience coaching professionals and she switched to Tony Carpenter, who has coached three-time Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown. Wilson currently attends Temple University in Philadelphia, where she trains under her high school coach, Derek Thompson.
When it came time to leave home, both Cain and Efraimson (who is one year younger) went to the same college, the University of Portland, but the two had vastly different experiences. Though UP was much closer to Cain’s primary coach, Salazar, it was almost 3,000 miles away from her hometown of Bronxville, N.Y., and she struggled on the track, eventually transferring to Fordham University after her freshman year. Though Efraimson, whose hometown of Camas, Wash., is just across the Columbia River from Portland, did not PR in the 1500 last year as a freshman, she ran an 800 personal best (2:00.99) and recorded her best finish at USAs (6th in the 1500). Hill, who lives outside Atlanta, said her plan is to attend the University of Georgia next year. Asics will pay for her college tuition.
Brazier initially moved to Orlando in August to train under University of Central Florida coach (and American 800 record holder) Johnny Gray, but returned to Texas A&M last month. Loneliness and boredom were two of the main reasons. Brazier would get up early in the morning to work out with training partners Duane Solomon and Sean Obinwa, but after practice was over, Solomon would go home to his family, Obinwa would go to work and Brazier would go home to an empty apartment with the rest of the day to kill. He’d initially planned to take classes at UCF, but he couldn’t get in, leaving him with nothing to do with all his free time.
There were other issues (Brazier wasn’t a fan of the extra mileage Gray had him running), but Gray had seen this situation before. A few years earlier, Gray had worked with Puerto Rican 800 runner Wesley Vazquez, who was in the exact same situation: 19 years old and on his own in a professional environment. Vazquez began eating poorly and eventually left Gray after becoming homesick. Both Gray and Brazier knew that he was better off leaving.
“Donavan’s a 19-year-old kid,” Gray said. “He’s a year older than my youngest son. I can’t imagine my youngest son in an apartment by himself somewhere by himself trying to be responsible. It’s kind of rough to do. Going back to where he left, he has his sophomore friends that he was running with last year, he’s in a familiar area, he has kids his age he can hang out with and have fun with and he’s still in a school atmosphere. I think that’s a better place for him. But as he gets older, if there’s a problem then I think he can handle it when he’s much older than at 19.”
Brazier is now back at Texas A&M training under his college coach Alleyne Francique. He’ll start taking classes again in December.
Noah and Josephus Lyles are in the same situation now that Brazier was in – they moved to Florida on their own, and don’t have plans to enroll in a college until next year – but with one huge difference – they still have each other, which they hope will allow for a smoother transition than the one Brazier faced. Josephus said their biggest challenge has been cooking for themselves; before he moved to Florida, Josephus was so clumsy in the kitchen that Keisha had to keep burn cream near the stove. But part of being a professional athlete is eating properly, so the Lyles brothers signed up for a service, Blue Apron, that ships the ingredients for fresh meals to their doors. That has made cooking easier — as have the several pairs of oven mitts Keisha bought for them.
“Now I can do a little something something,” Josephus said.
The current generation of prep-to-pro athletes will serve as an experiment of sorts. Clearly Felix made the right decision and Wilson, who has made the U.S. senior team every year since turning pro and earned a silver medal at World Indoors in March, looks to be another hit. But for the others, it’s still too early to tell. If athletes like Efraimson, Hill and the Lyles brothers start making teams and winning medals, you can expect even more young superstars to follow in their footsteps. But there are others who have elected to stay in school (for now). Union Catholic (N.J.) High School’s Sydney McLaughlin made the Olympic semifinals in the 400-meter hurdles the summer after her junior year of high school and has yet to sign a contract. Michael Norman of Vista Murrieta (Calif.) High School, who ran 20.14 for the 200 in July, will run for USC this year.
Norman’s case is particularly interesting. He finished fifth at the Olympic Trials, just .05 of a second behind Noah Lyles. That presents a rare opportunity to compare two runners with similar ability: one who turned professional out of high school, and one who decided to go through the NCAA system. The world will be watching how the two phenoms develop — on and off the track.
Full disclosure: Global Athletics & Marketing, which represents Hill, Brazier and the Lyles brothers, covered two nights of the author’s lodging during the reporting of this story.
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