HE HAS BEEN WORKING 9 YEARS toward this. In the USATF Golden Games 200 Noah Lyles relied on his technique in the homestretch to pip Kenny Bednarek at the line, 19.90–19.94. It was the world champion’s fastest race in May since sprinting 19.83 at the Doha DL in ’18, and 2021 is an Olympic season Lyles is rolling into in the driver’s seat.
A long stretch lies ahead: through the Trials next month, on to the Games in early August — Lyles hopes — and after Tokyo the schedule features 6 Diamond League meets with a 100, or a 200, or both, on their timetables. With that in mind, coach Lance Brauman has Lyles ramping up with a measured tread.
“To be honest,” said Lyles after dispatching Bednarek on Mt. SAC’s homestretch, “I was coming in here with some pretty low expectations. I exceeded all of them. I felt very proud of what I did today.
“It was like when I went out to Tom Jones [for his 100 opener in April]. Now, I didn’t know what I was going to run that day and I ran [10.08], and I was very proud of that. You know, I came out here and in my first race dropped a 19. I am very proud of that.”
At the sound of the gun for the latter race, Lyles relied on a new attitude about starts. “Basically, gun goes off, I’m over here just getting out,” he explains. “Lately I feel like I’ve been overthinking about the start and everything, and everybody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you gotta put so much emphasis on the start,’ but I’ve been watching a lot of runners, especially like Sha’Carri [Richardson], and it’s more like getting yourself into positions to run fast.
“You know, the start doesn’t mean anything if you’re not in a bad position when you stand up. So I was like, ‘Let’s just focus on standing up and then see where I am in the race and then adjust from there.’
“And I came off the turn and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna use this momentum to come off the turn and then from there I’m gonna just start running.’ And I came off, I think I was in 2nd. I saw Kenny out there. I’m like, ‘I can catch him.’
“And I’m just trying to maintain my form while I’m moving fast there and just try my best not to push too hard because as soon as I push too hard, that’s where I’m just going to lose my form. To be honest, that just sent me shooting and I was able to cross the line first.”
The race also left Lyles unbeaten over 200 since Michael Norman edged him by 0.02 at the ’19 Rome DL.
Lyles’ last 100 loss before Justin Gatlin, Andre De Grasse and Bednarek got him in the Jones 100 came at the Monaco DL in July of ’19, 6 weeks after Rome.
While no sprinter enjoys finishing lower than 1st, Lyles’ concern is June, July and August, not April, so he assures he walked off unperturbed when Trayvon Bromell out-dashed him at the USATF GP in Eugene two weeks before the Golden Games.
“Tom Jones, I was actually really pleased,” Lyles says. “I had been running with a lot of load on my body and I was just trying to make sure that what I did run was going to be good. And when I did that 10.08 I was like, ‘Yeah!,’ I felt proud of that.
“Going into Oregon, once I heard that the weather was going to be cold, I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ It’s not as much you can do about that. And to be honest, we got that good old Oregon weather and I took my time and ran with it.
“You know, having two races was probably the biggest goal. My coach was like, ‘My goal is just to get races under your belt,’ and going to Oregon, they had trials and finals. So he was excited with that. I was just happy to come away with having two races that I could be OK with.”
Between the Eugene and Walnut meets, “We went straight into the 200 training,” Lyles says. “As soon as we got back, we started doing 200 workouts. We started doing a lot of 150s fast, and then we started doing like 120/80s and just stuff like that.
“Then my coach was like, ‘Yeah, let’s just relax a little, let the body cool down from all the races and traveling and try and get our legs back under us.’ And that was kind of just it going into Mt. SAC.”
In the bigger picture, Lyles likes that the U.S. sprint cadre is shaping up as a cutthroat league to play in this Olympic season. “It’s probably the strongest we’ve had in a long time,” he says, “and when I look at it, it’s exciting because this is where I wanted it to be when I entered the stage of track & field. I wanted it to be where the U.S. was becoming dominant again like we used to be. We can go and we can look at almost every sprint event and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to at least grab one medal or two, or we could even potentially sweep the whole event.’ That’s exciting to see.”
Cross fingers, the retreat away from earlier surges that the pandemic seems to be making in the U.S., has Lyles feeling cautiously optimistic that the Olympics can be held without triggering a super-spreader event.
“I was vaccinated pretty early and I’m not too worried,” he says. “I think that now that the vaccine is a lot more accessible to people and even in the world, it gives me more security that going into the Olympics it would be safer and not have too many issues with COVID. Of course, everybody’s still taking those extra precautions to make sure that we don’t have to deal with it. So that makes me also feel going into the Olympics that I’m fine.”
With a long history of planning for the Games (see sidebar), Lyles figuratively scratches his head when asked how he thinks C19 restrictions on athlete contacts and mingling with competitors in other sports might affect the Olympic experience. (Continued below)
“I’ve never made an Olympic team,” he reminds. “So I can’t tell you what the Olympics is supposed to be like. People are like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna suck for a first Olympics.’ But to me, it’s like I just want to make the team and win.
“I’m not really here for other people’s events. I mean, it’s cool that everybody comes and we’re all supportive of each other and seeing all the events come together as one. But I’m truthfully here to — you know, my contract, doesn’t say, ‘Win and also go support other teammates in different sports that win.’
“To be honest, I couldn’t tell you what it would take away, no. I feel that outside the energy is still there. The fans and the world and people are excited and they want to see this happen. If the rules or restrictions are what we gotta deal with, let’s do it.”
Lyles, though, is the sprinter who hugged a Smurf mascot when he won his first DL event crown in ’17, the guy who live-performed a song with Sandi Morris and a group called Baba Shrimps to close the ’19 DL Final.
Just before taking the blocks at Monaco last summer to crank the fastest half-lap of ’20 (19.76), he raised a Smith/Carlos-reminiscent fingerless black glove skyward. “As athletes it’s hard to show that you love your country and also say that change is needed,” he explained on Instagram. “This is my way of saying this country is great but it can be better.”
Leaving aside fraught discussion of the IOC’s stance toward sociopolitical gestures, Lyles feeds off an audience. The Tokyo Games — assuming with good health and peak performance Lyles makes it there — won’t feature much of one. That’s not the milieu he or most athletes would select. How will it affect him?
“It’s going to be weird,” Lyles agrees. “I don’t really have an answer for you because truthfully I’m a performer, I like to go out there and run with people out there. And these past few weeks I’ve been running where there’s been some people and then there’s been no people, and it’s not fun to run with no people. I’ll just put it like that.
“But that doesn’t mean that fast can’t be run. You’ll still have your competition, you’ll still have the time, and you still have the stadium, which is state of the art. So going in it’ll be, ‘This is still a huge stage. There will be people watching TV on the edge of their seats waiting to watch that.’
“So many people are just like, ‘Oh, my!‘ Even my personal friends are just like, ‘I’m so excited for the Olympics. Yeah, there’s not going to be fans, but I’ll be watching!’ Everybody wants to make sure that they know that I know that they’ll be watching.”
Noah Lyles knows.