By Jonathan Gault
October 1, 2019
DOHA, Qatar — Noah Lyles is a planner. Before competitions, he carefully selects which socks he will wear (he’s fond of cartoons — Sonic the Hedgehog, Dragon Ball Z, and The Incredibles have all made appearances on his feet), what he will do while he’s introduced on the start line (finger pistols have been a favorite of his in 2019), and how he will celebrate after he wins. Before the US championships in Des Moines in July, he spent a day memorizing the dance Kevin Durant performed before Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals so that he could replicate it after he won the 200 meters.
The silver highlights in Lyles hair for tonight’s men’s 200-meter final at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships? Those was planned months ago, another tribute to Dragon Ball Z and the character Goku, whose final form, Ultra Instinct, features silver hair.
“My mom was a planner, and she kind of invoked that in all of us,” Lyles said.
But not everything went exactly to plan tonight. Lyles, 22, won the race, his first world title. That was the first and most important of his two-part plan at Khalifa International Stadium, and it didn’t much bother him that he trailed Great Britain’s Adam Gemili and Canada’s Andre De Grasse off the turn before reaching top gear and blowing them away over the final 50 meters.
“I have run so many different races, from my childhood through juniors, through youths, that I have come from the back of races, I have come from the middle of races, I’ve come off of [the turn in] first,” Lyles said. “But I know that no matter what, I can pull off a win from any position.”
The more ambitious part of Lyles’ plan was to run a time under 19.4 seconds — something only Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and Michael Johnson have ever achieved — and that will have to wait. In front of a stadium with large swaths of empty seats, Lyles ran just 19.83 seconds — his slowest time in the six 200m finals he’s run this year — but such is his dominance that he still beat De Grasse by a comfortable .12 of a second (Ecuador’s Alex Quinonez took the bronze in 19.98).
For now, there are no more outfits to plan, no more introductions to choreograph. Just a world title to celebrate.
It’s late July in Drake Stadium, Des Moines, Iowa, and the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships have been over for 30 minutes. The sky is dark, ominous, but the thunder has held off for now. The air is thick as a light drizzle patters the track. Bowerman Track Club teammates Matthew Centrowitz and Josh Thompson run laps around the turf infield. The stands, not that full to begin with, have mostly emptied out. But by the tunnel just past the finish line, the one athletes use to enter and exit the mixed zone for media obligations, there is a line of perhaps 50 people waiting for Noah Lyles.
At the front, a pack of half a dozen boys no older than 10 years old is growing impatient.
Where is Noah? one voice whines. Various theories — and complaints follow.
He must be taking a shower…Look for the silver-haired guy. Maybe he disguised himself…We still have to eat supper!
None of them seem interested in the trim, fit man with the shaved head in the tunnel, so Carl Lewis walks away. But then…
Is Noah coming? I think he’s coming.
Their hero arrives. Lyles quickly takes up a position on the railing in the first row and begins doing a job he views almost important as the training sessions he completes at his base in Clermont, Florida. He takes selfie after selfie — he’s efficient, repeatedly barking out, not rudely, “next phone!” to keep the line moving. Some ask for autographs, while some offer advice.
“Stay healthy,” an elderly voice implores.
One fan asks Lyles to replicate the Durant dance so that he can record it on video. This, too, Lyles obliges. He keeps fulfilling requests until the line is gone, at which point he poses for one final picture with coach Lance Brauman before walking across the infield into drug testing and the Des Moines night.
This stuff matters to Lyles. He loves that fans bombard his DMs to share in his passions, offering suggestions of which anime shows to watch or what dance he should do after his next race. He loves that, before he won the 200 in Des Moines, the NBC broadcast showed a side-by-side comparison of Lyles and a Dragon Ball Z character. And unlike most athletes, who view stops in the mixed zone as a chore to be endured, Lyles has even been known to have some fun talking to reporters — when he was asked to explain his silver-hair plan after his victory at USAs, he couldn’t help but smile as he led a gaggle of anime-ignorant journalists through the finer details of Dragon Ball Z mythology.
“It makes me very happy that everybody is starting to catch on and that my interests are actually showing so everybody gets it,” Lyles says.
And that, more than just piling up victories on the track, is Lyles’ master plan. He knows that he won’t be this fast forever; while the spotlight is shining on him, he wants to make the most of it. And that means differentiating himself from his rival not just by his times, but by everything else he does.
Last year, when Lyles lined up for the USA 100-meter final, he looked around at the other runners and noticed everyone had short hair — including him. Lyles didn’t like that; he abhors anything that suggests he is just another guy. So in 2019, he grew his hair out. Then he noticed other guys doing that too. And that’s how the silver-hair Ultra Instinct plan was hatched.
“Who wants to be the same as everybody else?” Lyles says. “Who wants to be forgotten as just that guy who was fast? When I leave, people are gonna remember me not for me just being fast, but all the things I left behind while doing it.”
When Lyles first crossed the line in Doha tonight, there was no wild dancing. No anime shoutout. There was, however, a glimpse at the grind, all the intervals and weightlifting sessions that don’t go viral but are more necessary to maintaining Lyles’ status as one of the sport’s brightest stars than his memeable celebrations. Without the first, the second does not exist.
Lyles spent his first seconds as a world champion hunched in a ball, knees crunched tight to his elbows, forearms flat on the track, his red, white, and blue American flag socks poking out of his white adidas spikes. He thanked God for carrying him through a season that, for the first time in his young career, had stretched into October. Only after he had done that did he grab an American flag and begin to celebrate in earnest.
“It’s been the longest year that I’ve ever had to run,” Lyles said after the race, sounding positively exhausted.
Then, a heaving sigh.
“Gosh, it’s a lot of relief.”
All year, Lyles, like all sprint prodigies, has been asked about what’s next, about the world record, about that tall Jamaican guy who doesn’t run anymore. All those questions, and his master plan? For a few moments tonight, they could wait. On a pink track in a stadium in Qatar, he didn’t have to worry about what might be, only what was true, now and forever: that Noah Lyles is a world champion.
2019 200m World Championship final
1 1913 Noah LYLES USAUSA 19.83 0.168
2 400 Andre DE GRASSE CANCAN 19.95 0.168
3 625 Alex QUIÑÓNEZ ECUECU 19.98 0.189
4 827 Adam GEMILI GBRGBR 20.03 SB 0.158
5 1775 Ramil GULIYEV TURTUR 20.07 0.164
6 397 Aaron BROWN CANCAN 20.10 0.163
7 475 Zhenye XIE CHNCHN 20.14 0.161
8 1750 Kyle GREAUX TTOTTO 20.39 0.170
Noah Lyles post-Worlds interview
Men’s 200m medalists’ press conference