How sprinter Noah Lyles overcame scepticism
Ever since Noah Lyles broke the American 200-meter record at July’s world track and field championships, the 25-year-old sprinter has rewatched numerous times his 19.31-second, runaway victory and his celebration that followed.
Just not for the reason you might expect.
Lyles likes reliving the celebration, of course. The moment he realized he had edged Michael Johnson’s iconic 26-year-old record by 0.01, Lyles tore off the top half of his United States speedsuit in front of a raucous Eugene, Ore., crowd and unleashed a yell that had been seemingly pent up inside him for 11 months, when disappointment at the Tokyo Olympics gave way to depression and doubt.
“It lit that fire,” he said in an interview. “Seeing the results of that at Oregon was writing the perfect end to a story.”
Yet when Lyles looks at one angle of last July’s full-flex celebration in Eugene, he fixates on what isn’t perfect. Specifically, that the muscles on one side of his chest are less developed than the other, a muscle imbalance that has a trickle-down effect on the muscles in his back, legs and core, an indication his body is not able to produce its maximum force.
To Lyles, the image is one part cherished memory and one part motivation — that the third-fastest man over 200 meters in history can go faster.
It’s why after what many would consider a dream season, what has instead occupied Lyles’ thoughts in recent weeks, as his training for the 2023 season has begun in Florida, is a dream he first had in high school.
In it, Lyles is running on a blue track in an Olympic semifinal. He crosses the finish line and sees his time.
“9.41,” Lyles said — a time that would obliterate Usain Bolt’s 100-meter record of 9.58 set in 2009.
In a month when the world takes stock of the year that was, any review of track and field for 2022 must include mention of Lyles, who was named USA Track and Field’s top male athlete of the year last week — and a finalist for top global male — after going undefeated over 200 meters, and dipping under 20 seconds 11 times. Lyles’ personal bounce-back season also embodied the resurgence of U.S. men’s sprinting after Americans swept the world championships podium in the 100 and 200, produced the 400-meter champion and a 4×100-meter relay silver, on which Lyles ran a leg.
Lyles is a believer that strong convictions manifest themselves into real results. Which is why he believes his wildest dreams could become closer to reality in 2023. He plans to double up at next summer’s world championships in Hungary, competing in the 100 and 200, and expects nothing less than world-class times.
“Everybody hears me talk about breaking the [world] record in the 200 but I have the same plans for the 100, if not more,” Lyles said. “I think that desire is even stronger because it’s something that I feel I haven’t proven as much of a gift as what I have. Truthfully, I have a specific number in mind for the 100 but I’m just so far away from it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give up on it. It makes me that much more excited and that much more hungry to perfect something that people essentially see as my weaker event.”
In a technical sense, chasing down Bolt’s 100- and 200-meter records (19.19) will come from improvements in Lyles’ starts. He holds his top-end speed as well as anyone and his 200-meter training will help him remain strong in the latter half at 100 meters, said Ato Boldon, the NBC Sports commentator and a seven-time medalist in the 100 and 200 at the Olympics and world championships.
That Lyles is in a position to attempt a double or run down Bolt is a reflection of the way Lyles effectively started over on a personal and professional level after earning 200-meter bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.
Lance Brauman, who coached former U.S. sprint champion Tyson Gay and now trains Lyles and world 400-meter world champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo, first took note of Lyles at the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials. When Lyles’ then-coach wasn’t allowed in the warmup zone, Brauman observed Lyles’ composure and was impressed: The prep prodigy from the Washington suburbs dutifully prepared for the biggest race of his life by himself.
In Tokyo, there was stark contrast as Lyles felt out of sorts as soon as mysterious swelling behind his left knee rendered him unable to perform a full squat the day before his first preliminary round. More troublesome was the state of his confidence. Had sprinting not worked out, Lyles believes he would be a hype man, a rapper or studio television host.
“I’d find some way to get that showman out,” he said.
The pandemic left him isolated, without an audience, and disconnected from family and friends. He had long imagined entering a sold-out stadium before racing in his first Olympic final. Tokyo’s COVID-emptied stadium was “probably the most anticlimactic thing I could have ever experienced,” he said.
“He didn’t seem like himself, he was running tight,” said Boldon, who thought Lyles was sullen and forcing his pre-race theatrics.
Lyles left with a bronze medal and self-described depression. While meeting with a therapist a few weeks later, in August 2021, Lyles was asked why he hadn’t committed to racing in the upcoming Prefontaine Classic, one of the most prestigious U.S. meets.
“I was saying, ‘I’m freaking scared,’” Lyles said. “I showed up to a moment that I had been preparing for almost all my career and I wasn’t ready and it didn’t go right. She basically called me a scaredy-cat; that’s the nice way of putting it.
“When she said that, that lit a fire within me and I was like, ‘There’s no way that I am going to be scared to race. I’m not even giving myself a chance.’ I showed up to the [Prefontaine] race and ran my season’s best and the world’s fastest time. It ignited that flame and desire that, OK, I messed up that time [at the Olympics] but I will make sure that never happens again. That was the whole energy that I carried throughout 2022.”
Lyles speaks about his mental health in a candor that has become increasingly common for athletes yet stands out as unique among sprinters, the racers most often stereotyped for showing only bravado and never weakness. In the months before he tore off his red, white and blue singlet in Eugene last summer, he’d bared a remarkable vulnerability to his thousands of social media followers.
“I feel that sharing my difficulties, one, helps others,” Lyles said. “It also helps me. I hate the idea when people come up to me and see me as not human, that I’m not a normal person with feelings, emotions, that goes through everyday life with struggles but also has great excitement and happiness.
“Those moments right there make me human and people come up to the athletes and they think that we’re just superheroes, that we just handle hardships and we shrug it off. No, we’re not shrugging it off, we’re going through it just like you would.”
Added Boldon, “I think Noah has been rewarded for being honest in a way that you don’t see athletes be honest, certainly in the last 10 or 15 years, by that American record. … To see him emerge on the other side was almost butterfly after caterpillar.”
He continues to visit a therapist, borrowing a phrase from his mother in calling the sessions “a check-up from the neck up.” He described another visit in which his therapist suggested his Tokyo disappointment was a good thing. Had he followed his 2019 200-meter world championship in Qatar with a gold in Tokyo, would he have become bored with pushing himself?
He quickly found himself agreeing with the point.
“He’s the type,” Brauman said, “that a little bit of adversity actually helps him as far as refocusing and get back to the basics and get that hunger to go out there and prove himself.”
Finding motivation for 2023 has not been difficult despite his golden 2022. He, his mother and brother, Josephus, another elite U.S. sprinter, want to expand the reach of their Lyles Brothers Sports Foundation. He wants the entire sport of track and field to grow in relevancy in the U.S., taking to social media to wonder what it would take to get a studio show on a major network regularly devoted to the sport.
There is the pull of expanding his dominance to the 100, which is no given. American Fred Kerley is the reigning world champion. Michael Norman, the Murrieta-raised world 400 champion, could also join a deep field of challengers. As training began in late October, Lyles made changes to his physical therapy, diet and aspects of his training to shave hundredths of a second off his start and “really, really get better from that 10-40 mark where just that overall acceleration takes place,” Brauman said.
It is all part of his quest for on-track perfection — a breakthrough that began when Lyles accepted he, as a person, will always have imperfections.
“Even when I run the world record,” Lyles said, “I’m going to be looking at that race and I can imagine myself saying, ‘Here! Right there! That’s where I didn’t put my foot down in the right position and I buckled and my hips came out of line.”