How Will Noah Lyles Build His Legacy?

“I feel that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel because I haven’t created it yet, It’s still being built,” says 200 king Noah Lyles of his prospects in the 100. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

Speed, on the track for sure but also in racking up honors, is Noah Lyles’ stock in trade. Just three seasons ago he earned T&FN High School Boys Athlete Of The Year honors for a second year in a row after lowering the half-lap HSR to 20.09. Skipping his NCAA eligibility he turned pro with adidas and World Ranked No. 2 in ’17. Then in ’18 he took it up another notch, earning No. 1 in the Rankings and also rating as U.S. Men’s AOY.

“Everything has actually gone really close to how I pictured it in my mind,” Lyles says. “When I was in high school in 2013, I was looking ahead to put myself in a position to be a champion in 2019 and 2020.”

Lyles also sees a parallel between his prep progression and his first two seasons as an adidas-sponsored pro working with coach Lance Brauman: “I am improving in the 100; my 200 is exactly where I thought it would be. I thought I’d be at maybe 19.5, but I’m right on the cusp of that. So I know I’m in a safe position. There’s nothing to fear on that side. And it’s funny when I think about this because I look back into my first two years as a high schooler and they’re almost kind of mirroring my times as I am now. So when I was a freshman I was running like 21.2 and I was just on that cusp of hitting 20-point, and then my sophomore year of high school, I was running 20.7 and now I’m running 19.6. So it’s very close and very similar how they’re mirroring each other.”

Already, but not prematurely and with appropriate humility, Lyles is thinking “Legacy.” The ’19 season will be the first in his rapidly rising career with World Champs medals realistically arrayed within his reach. Keep your peepers peeled.

Following an undefeated ’18 season in the 200 that brought the No. 1 World Ranking and his second straight Diamond League crown, Lyles starts ’19 as the man to beat in the deuce. No one else has ever produced five straight sub-19.9s in a season and in having dashed four consecutive times under 19.70 in one year his only company is Usain Bolt. That has Lyles feeling well positioned, a golden glint in his eye, for the World Champs year.

But if he’s already talking “legacy,” and Lyles is, there’s that other event, the 100 in which he World Ranked No. 3 in ’18, to weigh in the balance. In the first major title campaign of his pro career—which means rounds and finals at the U.S. Worlds trials and the same in Doha should all go swimmingly—the 21-year-old star is thinking double.

Lyles’ year-younger brother Josephus, U.S.-ranked in the 400 in his own right, believes that’s so. “Noah doesn’t like to lose,” he says. “He likes to win a lot. So if Noah has the potential to double, he’s most likely gonna double.”

Noah affirms his brother’s assessment. “I believe that we had this talk last year, this exact same time,” he tells T&FN, “and I was saying my goal was to make sure that I’m the dominant figure going in and I think I was referring to mostly just the 200, but now I feel that I am a key player in the 100 as well, being one of those top four leading in the world and a part of that American quartet right there. And it’s looking a lot better than I actually assumed. I didn’t think I was going to grab the U.S. title in the 100. I thought it would be the 200 first. So that was kind of a big shock to me and in a way as we were leading up to it, I was seeing that my gears were focusing more towards the 100 instead of the 200. And I’m glad that my coach was thinking the same thing or we would have had a bump-heads, kind of a confrontation.”

Again Lyles harkens back to his development as a prep, where his biggest outings were always in the 200 and his racing success in the shorter dashes, which he mainly ran indoors, depended on a hard-charging finish. “I wasn’t the fastest [short sprinter]. In Virginia we’d do the 50 and the 60 we would do at Nationals, so I’d rarely run the 60, but in high school, yeah, I was not anywhere close. I was always that guy who’d come up from behind just in the nick of time. I think my sophomore year, it wasn’t very good. I made it to States and I didn’t go to Nationals because I wasn’t fast enough, so it kind of is still very similar. But later that year, you know, my 100 actually started picking up because I think that’s when I ran 10.45 in the 100. So I went from 10.7 my freshman year to 10.4 as a sophomore.

“So there was a lot of development and when you look at my 100 from my first year of being pro where I ran one race and it was a 9.9-high and now you look at my racing and it’s 9.88 and, you know, still climbing, I don’t know what I’m going to do next year but I know it’s gonna be faster than that.”

Lyles calls the 200 “my bread and butter. It’s my thing that I know that I can do almost to a science and that it’s getting faster each time I run. In the 100 I feel there’s still so much that I have to learn that it’s still a little early for me to get so excited about it. I have to take every 100 with lessons. I feel every 100 I’m still observing so much and breaking down everything, and with the 200 I feel that I’ve done a lot. I’ve put a lot of work in there, so I’m really ready to reap the benefits of it in sorts.”

In the straightaway dash—let’s face it, the 100 grabs the attention of even general sports fans—Lyles says, “I feel that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel because I haven’t created it yet, It’s still being built.”

Lyles is the picture of joy when he goes into one of his exuberant victory celebrations. (KEVIN MORRIS/PHOTO RUN)

Could be one gold medal asset of an attitude to take into one’s first world title season in the 100. Lyles adds, “The 200, I feel that it’s pretty much built and we’re kinda making it as smooth as possible. In the 100, I feel like it’s almost like a semicircle. So it’s more I’m creating and I’m increasing what I know about it to make it even better, and I’m hoping that by the time we get to the World Championships and the 100 it will be a wheel that is built.”

Within his semicircle of a 100 race model, Lyles draws strength from his ability to win from behind as he did in his first U.S. 100 final last summer. “That’s something that I’ve known I’ve been able to do since high school,” he says. “I’ve been constantly left in the blocks and I’ve constantly come back and I think I have to give most of that credit to my will to want to win. Now. I believe everybody has that will, it really comes down to if you’re in the back, are you going to believe enough in yourself that you can finish this race and can you actually pull the miracle off? And I feel that I’ve done it so many times that I know that it’s possible and that I can keep doing it because first you got to believe it’s possible and then you have to do it.”

Once Lyles wrapped his ’18 season with a win in the Continental Cup 100, “I didn’t stop traveling” throughout the fall, he says. “As soon as I got back I had to go to Jamaica for my mom’s wedding. She just got married and it was definitely just a lot of fun. We were at a resort and we were just chilling, relaxing by the pool, partying and all that good stuff. I got to see my mom [Keisha Caine, an NCAA 400 scorer for Seton Hall in her day] get married, I got to walk her down the aisle with my brother. It was a beautiful moment.

“And my brother and I, we built a house so as soon as I got home [from the wedding] we spent the whole week moving,” unpacking boxes, hanging blinds and TVs. With no indoor races planned and the late finish (early October) of the ’19 season accounted for, Lyles at least had the luxury of time for the task.

When he wants to unwind, Lyles records hip-hop tracks, an avocation he took up a year ago. “I’ve released like four songs,” Lyles says. “I made one for the adidas Boost Boston Games with Sharika Nelvis. They played that actually on TV while I was about to start running. And then for Monaco, I actually released a song and they put it on my Diamond League diary.” Over the off-season Lyles dropped two more tracks on SoundCloud.

“When I’m at home,” he says, “this is how I waste my time, basically. And I actually like going in and seeing what I can do to make something sound so good. And it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t think that I was doing that.’ You know, when you put a backup vocal to one of your songs, it’s just like, ‘Oof, that sounds good.’ You look back and see that you created a whole story in music.”

Music’s subjective nature appeals to Lyles as a yin to the yang of sprinting. “You can never be satisfied when you make music,” he says, “because you’re always gonna look for perfection and perfection is not going to be there—because as much as you want, you’re going to hear it one way, one day and another way a different day. You’re gonna keep going back and changing things, and then eventually you’re just going to have to say, ‘This is as good as it’s going to get,’ or you will like it and it will turn out exactly how you want.”

The beauty of track & field is different. Well, different for a man who can run like Lyles. “I can make the time great,” he says. “I can’t control how the audience will like my music.”

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