Icon in the Making: Why Noah Lyles Could Be the Next Face of Track & Field
By Jonathan Gault
June 19, 2018
Noah Lyles dreams of running 100 meters in 9.41 seconds.
Wait. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he dreamed of running 9.41, since it actually went down in one of those lights-off, under-the-covers, PJs-on dreams.
That’s right. Even in his sleep, Noah Lyles is faster than you.
Awake or asleep, no one has been able to catch Lyles. Still only 20 years old (he has to wait until July 18 to take his first legal drink in the U.S.), Lyles has already put together a résumé that includes a World U20 title at 100 meters, a Diamond League title at 200 meters, and a U.S. indoor title and world record at 300 meters. In 2018, he has won both of his 200-meter races handily, first the Diamond League opener in Doha on May 4 in 19.83, then a personal-best 19.69 at the Prefontaine Classic on May 26 to tie the world lead. On June 9 in Kingston, Jamaica, Lyles ran 9.93 for 100 meters (his non-dream PR), becoming just the second person to break 10.00 in the 100 and 19.80 in the 200 before their 21st birthday. The other is Yohan Blake of Jamaica, the 2011 100m world champion and second-fastest man in history at both 100 and 200 meters.
It’s not just the gaudy times that set Lyles apart. Before and after his races, Lyles isn’t afraid to have some fun. In Doha, he wore R2D2 socks and swung a make-believe lightsaber to celebrate Star Wars Day (May the Fourth). He’s shown off dances inspired by the popular video game Fortnite and the YouTuber King Vader. On the start line of his race at Pre, he raised his hands in the air and called for a “spirit bomb,” a move from the TV show Dragon Ball Z. But when the gun goes off, Lyles races like an experienced pro.
“He has an athletic maturity that belies his years,” says Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and sprint analyst for NBC Sports. “When you have a young sprinter, they tend to make certain mistakes, they tend to have certain flaws which are just typical of younger athletes who have not been seasoned in high competition. They’re [used to] running against high schoolers. But you look at any Noah Lyles race, whether he won or he lost, he very seldom breaks form, very seldom makes a mistake.”
The last two Americans Boldon can remember like that? Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin, who just so happen to be the last two American Olympic champions in the 100 meters.
On May 20, Boldon had a front-row view for Lyles’ race at the adidas Boost Boston Games, a street meet held on Boston Common. Lyles was entered in the day’s final event, the 150 meters, where he faced Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake, who anchored Great Britain’s 4×100 relay to victory at last summer’s World Championships. Lyles and Mitchell-Blake were drawn in adjacent lanes, and Mitchell-Blake, a 9.99 100-meter man, stormed to the lead. He was ahead at 100, 120, 130 meters. But as he neared the finish line, Mitchell-Blake’s side-to-side running motion became exaggerated. Lyles pulled level with 10 meters to go, and while Mitchell-Blake began to panic, his face twisting into a pained grimace as he made a desperate lunge for the line, Lyles’ upright form and stoic expression remained the same as when he had popped out of his drive phase 100 meters earlier. Lyles ran straight through the line, taking the win in 14.77 seconds to Mitchell-Blake’s 14.81. Had he not run out of track, Lyles looked as if could have held that form for another 50 meters.
Boldon has been a Lyles believer ever since he finished 4th in the 200 at the 2016 US Olympic Trials as a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., — “Noah Lyles, to me, was a can’t-miss, and I don’t even believe in can’t-misses, not at that age,” Boldon recalls — and has seen him race plenty of times since. But he was so impressed by what he saw that day in Boston that he couldn’t resist hopping up onto the temporary track on Charles Street and chasing down Lyles’ coach, Lance Brauman.
“That sort of patience and composure, did you teach him that, or did he come with that?” Boldon asked Brauman.
Lyles overheard the question and butted in — “I came with it!” — and a moment later, Brauman confirmed it.
“Uh-uh,” Brauman said. “He came with that.”
As it is for many athletes, Lyles’ first year as a professional in 2017 was a learning experience. The difference: Lyles, who along with his younger brother, Josephus, turned pro directly out of high school, was learning while beating the world’s best sprinters. In his first career Diamond League race in Shanghai, he ran 19.90, becoming just the fourth teenager under the 20-second barrier. Then, in the Diamond League final in Brussels, Lyles ran an even 20.00, defeating U.S. champ Ameer Webb and world champ Ramil Guliyev of Turkey to earn the Diamond League title.
In between is where the learning took place. As Brauman discovered Lyles’ strengths — an incredible top gear, and a freakish ability to maintain that speed once he reaches it — he also found weaknesses. While Lyles already is, in Boldon’s opinion, the world’s best 200 runner right now, he wants to be great in both the 100 and the 200. And to do that, he has to work on his start. Lyles will never possess the start of Christian Coleman or Ronnie Baker, two Americans who rocket out of the blocks and are #1 and #3 on the all-time list at 60 meters. But if he can minimize that deficit, he may be close enough to run them down, just as he ran down Mitchell-Blake in Boston.
“Throughout his career, [the start] gonna be something we continue to emphasize,” Brauman says. “It’s the part of his race that just doesn’t come as natural for him, so you have to spend more time on it.”
More importantly, Lyles learned about his body, specifically what it could and could not handle. At 5’10’, 160 pounds, Lyles is light and lanky for a sprinter, and after running 19.90 in Shanghai last year on May 13, his body began to rebel; he developed a hamstring injury that caused Lyles to withdraw from the U.S. championships after winning his first-round heat in the 200. As a result, Lyles was forced to watch last summer’s World Championship final from the couch as Guliyev won in 20.09, the slowest winning time at Worlds since 2003. Lyles thinks he could have won that race; Boldon is sure of it.
“If you look at that final last year and who got what place, it’s hard to imagine any of them beating him,” Boldon says. “I think Guliyev gets the most out of what he has, but on his best day he’s going to run 19.8; he does not have the 100-meter speed to go much faster than that. [Silver medalist] Wayde [van Niekerk], I think, was tired coming back from the 400, I really do. Wayde may eventually be the person that challenges [Lyles] the most if he’s not doubling back from 400. [Bronze medalist] Jereem Richards doesn’t have the turn ability or 100 meters ability of Noah to be able to threaten him.”
Lyles bounced back quicker than anyone imagined by winning in Brussels, and moving forward, he’s emphasized one-legged squats and Romanian deadlifts in the weight room to strengthen his hamstrings. He doesn’t believe he needs to become Shawn Crawford-level ripped in order to succeed; he just needs to be strong enough to stay healthy.
“If I’m running faster and faster times, I need my hamstrings to be able to handle that load that I’m bearing onto it, because the more power that I apply to it, the more muscle I’m going to need to be there,” Lyles says. “If muscles aren’t strong enough to handle that, you get injured, which is actually what happened to me last year. My hamstrings just weren’t strong enough to go that fast yet. And my body did it, and as a result, I injured myself.”
While Lyles’ talent is rare, he’s not the fastest guy Brauman has coached. Of the nine men ahead of Lyles on the all-time 200-meter list, Brauman has coached two of them, Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon, and he knows that he can’t rush Lyles’ development. Compared to the older athletes he coaches, Brauman does not race Lyles as much to ensure he recovers between hard efforts.
“We’re still doing normal work that I would have done if I had a sophomore/junior in college,” Brauman said. “He’s still putting in a little bit more volume, still a lot more lifting than you would if you’re 28. He’s still maturing and he’s still getting better.”
The 200 is Lyles’ favorite event, and quite obviously his best, but the true greats in the sprints have always been able to run multiple events. Lyles has the pedigree to become a world-class 400 man, should he so choose. His father, Kevin Lyles, owns a PR of 45.01, while his mother, Keisha Caine, was a multi-time All-American at Seton Hall and part of the Pirates’ NCAA-champion 4×400 squad in 1994 and his brother Josephus has a 45.09 pb. But between the 400 and 100, Lyles prefers the 100, and that’s the event he’ll run at USAs this week (of course, because this is track and field and we can’t have nice things, he won’t be facing reigning world outdoor champion Gatlin or world indoor 60-meter champion Christian Coleman, both of whom are skipping the meet). Brauman sees things the same way. Brauman divides his Clermont, Florida-based group, Pure Athletics, into three sub-groups — 100 specialists, 100/200 runners, and 200/400 runners. Lyles has trained with the 100/200 athletes since joining the group in the fall of 2016 and no plans to change things up. It’s working, after all.
One more thing Lyles has to work on: repeating his success from anywhere on the track. Last year, Lyles won from lane 8 in Shanghai and lane 9 in Brussels, perhaps more out of necessity than choice. But now that Lyles has blossomed into a star (where he can dictate his choice of lanes), he has chosen to remain on the outside. In Doha and Eugene, he was in lane 7 for both races, and Boldon says that is not by accident.
“He puts himself in 7 for a reason because that’s where he is most comfortable with how short the turn is or how little he has to be on the turn,” Boldon says. “For him, I think he understands that look, if you make the World Championship final next year, you’re likely not gonna be in 7. And the Olympic Games, if you run the way we’re used to seeing you run, you’re not going to be in lane 7 for the final, either. So you could get used to lane 7, or now that you are running close to 9.90 in the 100, you can put yourself in lanes that you are uncomfortable in, or maybe not as comfortable in, and master those.”
While Lyles is not a huge fan of school — “I’m not too big on doing [the] college thing,” he says, while explaining that he doesn’t have plans to attend college in the near future — he is a student of track & field history. Lyles knows that if you run fast enough in the post-Usain Bolt era (oh, you didn’t think he would come up in an article about a sprint phenom?), someone will start drawing comparisons to the big man. But he also knows that track & field history does not begin with Bolt’s wins at the 2008 Olympics. Bolt was unique, a once-in-a-lifetime combination of talent and charisma. But there were big stars before Bolt, and there will be big stars after Bolt, even if they don’t achieve quite the same level of global fame.
100/200 PBs on 21st birthday
Usain Bolt*: 10.03/19.75
*Bolt only ran the 100 once before
**Lyles turns 21 on July 18
“Everybody’s looking for the next something,” Lyles says. “It wasn’t even Bolt a few years ago. It was what, the next Asafa [Powell]? Or the next Carl Lewis? Or the next Michael Johnson? There’s always going to be a next something. Everybody wants the next star, but truthfully it’s just the next big name that they’re really searching for, they just have a name to replace it with. So truthfully I’m just gonna keep being Noah and hopefully sooner or later it’ll just become, Noah is the best.”
For better or worse, Justin Gatlin, he of the four-year doping ban, has been the face of U.S. men’s sprinting during the 2010s. But Gatlin is 36. He may be around for Tokyo 2020, but not beyond it. Right now, in June 2018, there are three prime candidates to replace him: Lyles, Coleman, and Michael Norman. (A disclaimer: more sprint talent emerges every year; this list could look different in 12 months).
Though each has a different specialty, the three men are close to equal talent-wise. Coleman, 22, already holds the world record over 60 meters indoors and is tied for 9th all-time at 100 meters. Lyles is tied for 10th all-time at 200, while Norman, who is 138 days younger than Lyles and finished one spot and .05 behind in the 2016 Trials in the 200, is 6th on the all-time 400 list. (Side note: U.S. track fans should already be salivating over a potential Lyles-Coleman-Norman showdown in the 200 in 2020 Olympic Trials; they will get a preview at the Lausanne Diamond League on July 5).
But when it comes to personality, Lyles has the greatest star potential. Coleman is quiet and polite, but aside from a couple of outbursts following his greatest triumphs (his NCAA 100-meter win last year, his 60-meter world record this year), he has largely shielded his emotions from public view. Norman is a jovial sort, smiling and friendly, but that’s about all we know about him at this point.
Lyles is a natural showman, and he loves to share his passions, from art (he customizes his own shoes) to rapping (he and hurdler Sharika Nelvis created an original song for the adidas Boost Boston Games) to his Dragon Ball Z-themed celebrations. If he were to become the face of the sport, it’s a role he would embrace. In February, Lyles had the word ICON tattooed just below his ribcage in bold block letters, partly because he’s a fan of the Jaden Smith song of the same name, but partly because that’s what he’d like to be viewed as one day.
“I want to be an icon,” Lyles says. “I want to be somebody that people can look up to, they can say that this guy, he’s doing the right thing…I’m really big on performances and making people happy and make the crowd feel happy and just living in the moment.”
Lyles already has the “make the crowd feel happy” part down. But he’s a long way from icon status. Two days after he ran 19.69 at Pre, Lyles released a video on his YouTube channel about the race. In the video, he delighted in the fact that he had been recognized by a fan during his pre-race meal in Eugene — it had never happened to him in a public place before.
As for what he wants to accomplish on the track, Lyles would like to get close to 19.4 in the 200 by the end of 2018, which would put him in rare company — only Bolt, Blake, and Michael Johnson have ever broken 19.50. Eventually, Bolt’s 19.19 world record looms as a target, but that mark was set by the greatest sprinter ever at the peak of powers, and 200m world records tend to have some staying power. Pietro Mennea‘s 19.72 lasted almost 17 years until Johnson broke it in 1996. Johnson held the record for 12 years until Bolt came along. Bolt will celebrate 10 years as the record holder on August 20, and could easily go another 10 — in the past decade, only Blake, who ran 19.26 in 2011, has seriously challenged it.
“When anybody shows up now, they’re like, ‘Hey, he ran 19.69 at 20, he’s gonna break the world record,'” Boldon says. “Um, I don’t know that that’s a given because I know how special a time 19.19 is. And 19.19 was set by a guy who can run 9.5 [in the 100]. So I’m not of that group. But I do think that if you’re going to place bets, you could do a lot worse than to bet on the guy who’s running 19.6 and counting so far at age 20.”
And what about that 9.41 in the 100? For now, that time exists only in Lyles’ subconscious. For now.
“Nobody said it’s impossible,” Lyles says. “Would you say Usain Bolt’s [9.58] was impossible? Until somebody does it, you never know.”
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