Noah Lyles (19.31) Breaks Michael Johnson’s 200m American Record to Lead US Sweep at 2022 Worlds

By Jonathan Gault
July 21, 2022

EUGENE, Ore. — When Noah Lyles lined up for his first Olympic 200-meter final in Tokyo last year, he could hardly have been placed in a worse environment to succeed. His fitness, which had been lagging earlier in the year as he tried to balance the 100 and 200 and wean himself off the antidepressants that had caused him to put on weight and sapped his energy, was coming around. But he started the race in lane 3 (the result of a rookie mistake of letting up in the semifinals); Lyles, never the best turn runner, prefers to be on the outside. There were no spectators in the Olympic Stadium — and Lyles, who has made a habit of calling upon fans for a “Spirit Bomb” before races (a nod to the anime show Dragonball Z), feeds off the fans more than anyone in the sport of track & field. His family was not even allowed to come due to Japan’s COVID-19 restrictions. Lyles clocked 19.74 that night to earn the bronze medal, but it was not the gold Lyles and the track world had expected before the season.

“Worst-year Noah,” Lyles said, pointing to a picture of himself from the 2021 season on a fan’s shirt at the NYC Grand Prix earlier this year.

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On Thursday night, with Lyles set to contest the 200-meter final at the 2022 World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field, everything had changed. He was in lane 6 this time. The stands were not packed, but the 10,000+ American fans were loud enough to send a charge through Lyles before the race. And his family was out in force in Eugene — brother, sister, mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, uncle, grandmother. The stage was set for the race he should have run in Tokyo, and Lyles, like the sport’s greatest champions, rose to the occasion with an otherworldly performance.

Rocketing out of the blocks, Lyles ran the greatest bend of his life to lead by daylight coming off the turn, burying the field from there to run a personal best of 19.31 seconds and, after 26 years, erase Michael Johnson‘s name from the books as American 200m record holder. Lyles was so far ahead — and so unused to leading by so much off the turn — that he stopped racing humans and started racing ghosts.

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics)

“I didn’t know who got second,” Lyles said. “…I didn’t know that Erriyon (Knighton — the bronze medalist, we’ll get to him) got third until we all walked up to the podium.”

Lyles was instead focused on Johnson’s golden-shoed American record of 19.32 from the 1996 Olympic final in Atlanta, a mark that remained unchallenged until tonight. Johnson’s time had stood for so long that for a generation of track fans, it was established as a fundamental tenet of the sport. The track is 400 meters, the shot weighs 16 pounds, and Michael Johnson is the 200m American record holder (Knighton’s 19.49 earlier this year was the only time before tonight another American had broken 19.50, let alone 19.40). Lyles prides himself at staying relaxed, but by the end of tonight’s he was moving so fast that even his typically exceptional form began to buckle ever so slightly– that is what it takes to topple a Johnson record. He still made it to the line well clear of silver and bronze medalists Kenny Bednarek and Erriyon Knighton, stopping the trackside clock at 19.32 to repeat as world champion.

Yet Lyles couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. He stared at the clock, almost willing it to change, bartering with the track gods.

“I was telling [the clock] to give me some slack, you know, man?” Lyles said. “How’s it going to slow up on the same time, 19.32? Come on, change that.” As soon as Lyles turned his back to search out his mother in the stands, it did change, and the crowd erupted. When Lyles found out, so did he, ripping open his Team USA singlet to expose his bare chest.

“That number changed from a 2 to a 1, and my whole mood changed,” Lyles said.

Johnson, watching from the stands in his role as commentator for the BBC, was struck by the ferocity with which Lyles attacked the start of his race.

“The key was the curve,” Johnson told LetsRun.com. “He ran it harder than ever before.”

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for World Athletics)

As for losing his American record? Johnson, retired for more than 20 years, had accepted that one day Lyles might run faster than 19.32 and was at peace with that.

“To be honest, once you held the world record the others don’t really matter so much,” Johnson said. “But also once I retired I’ve never had a desire to hold on to records.”

Behind Lyles, Bednarek (19.77) and Knighton (19.80) gave the US another podium sweep — its third of the championships, following the men’s 100 (with an entirely different set of athletes) and shot put. Knighton, who finished just .02 behind Lyles at USAs, was widely viewed as his biggest challenger for the title, but clipped the side of his starting blocks with his right foot as the gun fired, slowing his acceleration around the turn — usually the strongest part of his race. (Knighton was wearing new shoes for this race, for reasons he would not divulge). He was never going to run down Lyles after trailing off the bend, but Knighton, who graduated from Hillsborough High School earlier this year, still made history by becoming the youngest men’s sprint medalist in World Championship history at the age of 18 years, 174 days.

Knighton did not push Lyles tonight, but his looming threat motivated Lyles throughout the season on the road to the fourth-fastest performance in history, one bettered only by Jamaicans Usain Bolt (19.19), Yohan Blake (19.26), and Bolt again (19.30). When Knighton ran 19.49 on April 30 — at the time, faster than Lyles had ever run — Lyles was driving and immediately pulled a 180 in his vehicle.

“Stopped my dinner plans, turned back around,” Lyles said. “We’ve gotta get ready to run tomorrow.”

Later, it was the threat of Knighton — and the desire to chase Johnson’s American record — that caused Lyles to give up on his pursuit of double 100/200 crowns in Eugene and focus solely on the longer event.

“I did not want to lose to Erriyon, point simple,” Lyles said. “I don’t like losing. And it was just too much of a risk that tried to double with Erriyon over here dropping 19.4’s.”

Perfection is an unattainable goal in the sprints; until the clock reads 0.00, no athlete will be satisfied that they have run the perfect race. So Lyles was not perfect tonight. But he was the closest he has ever been, and the closest any human has been in over a decade, since prime Bolt and Blake roamed the Earth. It made you think, just maybe, that Bolt’s 19.19, untouchable for 13 years now, could be under threat one day soon. At least one expert believes so.

“I honestly don’t think Noah really cares about the AR that much,” Johnson said. “I think he wants the WR. And I think he can get it.”

That sort of talk is for another day, though. Right now, Noah Lyles is, once again, the 200-meter world champion in the fastest run ever by an American sprinter. That — for him, tonight, is enough.

***

Quick Takes by LetsRun.com

Quick Take: World Athletics lane assignments rules need a re-work.

Erriyon Knighton came into Worlds as the world leader. He won both of his heats, putting up the #2 times in both the first round (20.01) and semi (19.77). It’s ridiculous that he had to run the final out of lane 3.

Why was he in lane 3? No, it’s not to make things look good for TV. It’s because World Athletics rule 20.4 states there is to be a random draw for lanes 3-4-5-6 between the top four from the semifinal round. No. If you are going to have a draw, at a minimum, the 3 heat winners in the semis should be ranked ahead of a runner-up (then there is another draw for the 5th and 6th seeds for lanes 7 and 8 and then another draw for lanes 1 and 2).

LetsRun.com believes the athletes should be allowed to pick their lanes. Maybe right before the start to add drama. The #2 seed would pick first. Then the #1 seed gets to pick so they can be on their inside our outside and then #3 should go.

Noah Lyles post-race interview

Erriyon Knighton post-race interview

Knighton was a little down after taking 4th in Tokyo last year at age 17 but was proud to win a medal on Thursday and proud to be part of an American sweep.

Kenny Bednaerk post-race interview

Bednarek broke his toe in December and missed 7 weeks, but he showed no signs of rust tonight.

Joseph Fahnbulleh post-race interview

Fahnbulleh, 4th in 19.84, moved up one spot from the 2021 Olympic podium but was still disappointed not to medal.

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