T&FN Interview — Michael Norman

Michael Norman is now a triple-threat dashman, boasting PRs of 9.86, 19.70 & 43.45. Only legends Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson have put together better overall marks. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

FOR THE CASUAL FAN of our sport—one not wired to the supercharged California prep scene—a young man named Michael Norman might have first come onto the radar during the summer of ’16. That year the 18-year-old senior from Vista Murrieta High School made it to the finals of the Olympic Trials 200, where he placed 5th in a PR 20.14. (Continued below)

It was no fluke. Later that summer he won World Junior gold, capping a high school career that also saw him hit bests of 10.27 and 45.19. Expectations ran high when he arrived on the USC campus, where he fell under the tutelage of Caryl Smith Gilbert and ’92 Olympic 400 winner Quincy Watts. Eventually he also started training alongside Rai Benjamin—whose rise to the top levels of the sport would parallel Norman’s own.

He didn’t disappoint. By his sophomore year, Norman had conquered the collegiate world, winning NCAA titles in Collegiate Record time both indoors (44.52) and out (43.61) and joining Benjamin for CRs in both 4x4s.

The two—best friends, roommates, and “Call Of Duty” rivals—went pro. In ’19, Norman opened up with a 1-lap PR of 43.45, the preface to a sterling season that saw him also run 19.70 in the half-lapper. But it all fell apart at the World Championships, where he had to back off to avoid injury, failing to make the final. See “unfinished business” that he mentions below.

This season, restricted by the pandemic, Norman only made it to one starting line, where he exploded to a world-leading 9.86 in the 100, a PR by a stunning 0.41. Suddenly he has big options. But rather than dwelling on them, he’s busy getting set up in his first house. “Me and Rai,” he says, “we moved out. Our long journey of being roommates from college to now is over. We’re now two separate people living in two separate areas. But we’re still training partners, so don’t forget about that.”

He laughs, saying, “That’s kind of more of a joke.” Still the 22-year-old was glad to join us for a serious talk in late October about where he is in the sport right now, how he got there, and where he wants to go next. [Ed: note that many of Norman’s references to “last year” and “this year” are to the 2020 and 2021 training/competition years, not calendar years.]

T&FN: You and Rai Benjamin and your training group seem to have a great setup and what looks to be a terrific relationship with coach Quincy Watts and coach Caryl Smith Gilbert. How do the relationship dynamics work with your coaches?

Norman: Right now? Or would you say previously, because it’s kind of evolved. The fundamentals are basically the same, but you know, things have changed a little bit.

T&FN: What has changed? What’s the evolution?

Norman: My first year in college, it was kind of a relationship, especially between me and coach Caryl, it was just more of coach and athlete. Like I’ll listen to everything she does. And you know, my trust is 100% in her. And with coach Watts, the same situation, like I have 100% trust in coach Watts, but as the years have gone by, the relationship has shifted. The trust is still there 100%, but instead of me just kind of listening to whatever they say, they listen to what I have to say and what feels good for my body.

So when it comes to training, we talk a lot, strategize and figure out what makes Michael Norman the best at practice and on the track. An easy way to explain our relationship is, it’s more than just a coach and athlete relationship because coach Watts has given me a lot of great life advice and so has coach Caryl, but there’s just a really great dynamic between the two.

There’s a lot of respect between both the athlete and the coach. There is no sense that, you know, what he or she says goes, it’s more of a conversation between the two. And then we figure out a solution that maximizes the potential for the both of us.

T&FN: Whether it’s two coaches working together or two parents working together, it’s impossible to always be on the same page all the time. Are there differences? Do things come up where suddenly they might disagree about how to handle something with you?

Norman: Coach Watts and coach Caryl are polar opposites when it comes to coaching sometimes. I would say, I’m more of coach Caryl. When I train with her, there are certain times where I get excited and she gets excited and we do stuff that we’re not necessarily supposed to do at practice, which can negatively affect training the next week or even a competition. It’s good to have the balance between coach Watts and coach Caryl ’cause when me and coach Caryl get super-excited about a competition coming up or a certain race, Coach Watts reminds the both of us, you know, what the purpose is and what the goals are.

He’s a little bit more calm and laid back and he views every moment differently than coach Caryl. I would say we’re more like children when it comes to excitement and coach Watts is very calm and understanding and he says, “There’s always a time and a purpose for everything. So let’s just focus on what we’re supposed to do right now. And then when it’s time, then we can go crazy.” I guess that’s the best way to describe the difference between the two.

T&FN: Got it. He’s the mature voice that you need there, but sometimes he has to be the wet blanket.

Norman: He’s holding me accountable all the time. Coach Caryl is very motherly sometimes; she also holds me accountable, but there are times that coach Caryl may want me to do something else but coach Watts has a different opinion. And then depending on the situation, most of the time coach Watts is the one who kind of defuses the situation. It’s like, “OK, let’s just think about it this way and look at it longterm.”

A 200–400 double at the Olympics? “Right now I wouldn’t say no, that I’m not going to do it, but I would say it’s unlikely.” (KEVIN MORRIS)

T&FN: The last time you talked with our Sieg Lindstrom, you said that you and Caryl had a bet that if you won 400 gold, you could start playing seriously with the 100. Is that still the deal or are you thinking a little bit more about the 100 now?

Norman: I really want to run the 100, but I have a lot of unfinished business to do in the 400. So I feel like if I left that group right now, I would just be kicking myself. Long story short: yes, that is the goal. And also if I get this gold this next coming year in the 400, I’m for sure running the 100 the next year. No doubt about it, but don’t be surprised if I run a few 100s this year just for fun.

T&FN: I wonder if your path to the 100 might have played out differently. Back in 2015, you ran a leadoff leg for Vista Murrieta at the California high school finals in the 4×1. It’s been described as jaw-dropping–you separated from the field. I believe you only had one chance to run the open 100 that year. You obviously had your hands full with everything else that season, but was there a lot more in the tank than that 10.36?

Norman: I feel like during that year at the State Meet I was at my peak perfect form. Everything was feeling great. I just felt amazing. I got the opportunity after State to go to the adidas Dream 100 to compete in the 100—the first time that I had run a 100 in over a year or something like that. I think I had run one a year previously.

But honestly, I think 10.36 was a great time for me. There was nothing bad about it, but I think if we timed it differently and, you know, if it wasn’t after such a heavy load championship meet like the state championship then I think I probably could have been a little bit faster.

T&FN: Going down memory lane even further, when you were starting out, how far did you think this sport might go for you? Were you like so many little kids playing basketball, saying they’d make it to the NBA finals someday?

Norman: Definitely not. I just started running track for fun. Just a way to hang out with my friends a lot more often. When I got to high school, my freshman year, I was just like, “You know what, I’m just going to continue to running track to see where it goes.” I saw a lot of progress. I had huge PRs, like from 8th grade to 9th grade I went from 56 in the 400 to 49. It was huge for me. I saw a lot of progress, but I wouldn’t say until after my sophomore year, I was like, “Wow, I think I could really go to college for this.”

That motivated me to work harder and try to go for that state championship because, my sophomore year of high school, I lost both the 400 and the 200, by the total combined time of think of like 7 hundredths of a second. So I lost—barely lost—both races. But my first realization that I could go to college for the sport was after my sophomore year. But I mean, I didn’t grow up or start the sport thinking that, “Maybe I can run professionally one year. Maybe I can go to college or maybe I can even win a gold medal in the Olympics.”

It was just kind of something that developed over time. I don’t know if it’s the 2008 Olympics when I watched Usain Bolt or the 2012 Olympics, it was one of the two—I’m getting them mixed up—where I finally decided like, “I want to run at the Olympics.” It was one of those.

T&FN: Your parents both had competitive experience themselves in the sport. How much did that affect the advice they gave you?

Norman: The best thing about my parents, even though they both participated in the sport, they didn’t necessarily push me beyond my limits or were overbearing about the sport. They let me kind of be the kid that I was.

When I was in high school and middle school they let me build my own identity in the sport without having them be overbearing. Now my dad always gave me the best opportunities. He always put me in the best situations as possible. It’s like, “OK, I think you should start training here. I think you should try this new training group or I think you should lift weights here.”

That’s the type of advice my dad gave me, but you know, my mom, she kind of stayed away from giving me the track advice. She was more of a mother support figure than a mother coach, she was just kind of like, “OK, you need to eat your vegetables and make sure you’re doing what you need to do. You can’t run track unless you do good in school. So you better do good in school.” They were more concerned about being parents first than coaches. (Continued below)

T&FN: Your sister, Michelle, she preceded you in the sport a bit and ended up running collegiately. How did her experience affect you? Was she a helpful guide along the way?

Norman: Nah, nah [laughs]. So my sister, we both started track at the same time. I think it was 2009. She’s two academic years ahead of me so when I was in middle school, she was in high school. She was starting to build her own identity.

And when I came to high school, it was “Oh, you’re Michelle’s little brother” because my sister was that girl on the track team. She didn’t really give me advice or anything like that. She did her thing and I did my thing and we just kind of met in the middle and tried to be the best athletes that we could be. And there was never this sense of pressure that “You need to live up to my standards” or anything like that.

So I think my family dynamic when it came to sports was pretty good because my parents allowed us to be the athletes that we wanted to be. And my sister was just an athlete trying to be the best athlete that she could be while I was doing the same thing.

T&FN: Your high school coach at Vista Murrieta, Coley Candaele, it appears from what he said at the time that he tried to be careful not to overuse you. Was that approach helpful in your development?

Norman: I would say he kind of babied me throughout my high school career, but I think he really set me up for my future. I’ll always respect him for what he did for me because ever since I came to Vista Murrieta, no matter how good I got, he always treated me like every other high schooler.

There was no special treatment. He said, “I’m going to coach you like a high schooler because you’re a high schooler. There’s no need to train you like a college or a pro athlete right now because I want you to get to develop and see growth as you grow.” He treated me like the other athletes and helped me develop into who I am by not skipping steps, by taking the right path to train me as a high school athlete.

I think that’s kept me motivated through the years because—looking back at it now—if coach Candaele trained me like a pro coach and my workload was extremely high and I saw a huge growth as a high schooler, but not a lot of growth as a collegiate, I feel like a little bit of my motivation would have faded because I’d be confused on why I wasn’t getting better.

T&FN: Considering he was a middle-distance star himself [our No. 2 HS All-American miler in ’90], sounds like he did a great job with you as a sprinter.

Norman: I was just like, you know, whatever he says goes. There was no question or doubt in my mind, it’s like, he’s my coach and I’m just gonna work out and do whatever he says, because he has my best interest and it obviously worked very well. And I think that’s what helped our athlete–coach relationship. He was understanding of who I was as a high school athlete and I had 100% trust in his training. I think the combination of both is what allowed us to be very successful on the high school level.

T&FN: Jumping ahead to the to the Olympics, did the postponement of the Games put you in a better position to reach your goals or, or not?

Norman: That’s a tough question, because I felt like I was in a really good shape last year. But I think it puts me in a better situation just because I get to reevaluate what I did last year and make it even better this year. So I don’t see it as a negative or positive. I just see it as a progression of sport and who I am. It’s another opportunity to make myself even better, to be even more prepared.

T&FN: Looking at the Tokyo schedule, if one were to think of doubling at 200 and 400, it’s not impossible, but it’s certainly extremely challenging. What are your thoughts on that?

Norman: Yeah, it’s definitely not favorable. It’s definitely a challenging thing to do. Is it impossible? No, but the way it’s set up, will it hinder the effects of one of the events? Yeah, most definitely. I think a lot of people just see the schedule as, OK, it’s just 6 races, but you know, to us athletes, it’s more than just 6 races. It’s 6 opportunities where we have to warm up and cool down.

So every time we get to warm and cool down, you know, we go through those intense emotions mentally and then we go through those intense things physically where we go through these up-and-down cycles. It becomes exhausting at a certain point. Looking at the schedule it’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not favorable. It’s something that has to be very thought-out and one has to be prepared to do so.

T&FN: The guys who are only focusing on the 400 will get three days of rest between the semi and the final, while the doublers have to do three 200s in that span of time, including the final. Is it something you’re considering?

Norman: You know, currently it is not something that I’m considering. I haven’t really sat down and talked to my coaches to see how we’re going to approach the year, but like I said earlier, we have a lot of unfinished business to do in the 400. And you know, if I had gotten that gold medal in Doha last year, then the conversation would be a lot different this year.

But I have this goal that I really want to achieve this year. I need to make sure I put myself in the best position no matter what to achieve that goal. And if that’s sacrificing one event just to put myself in a better position, then that’s something to really consider in this conversation I’m going to have with coach Watts. So, right now I wouldn’t say no, that I’m not going to do it, but I would say it’s unlikely. (Continued below)

T&FN: In these conversations you have with your coaches, do possible relay berths play a role? Or is that like dessert, just something you save for the end?

Norman: That conversation actually comes up more often than the individual events, you know. I think in a perfect world—and coach Watts and I have talked about this—in a perfect world we would go to the Olympics, I would run the open 400 and then run [the 4×1 and the 4×4]. But again, it comes to preparation and conversations with other people to see if that’s even a feasible goal. That’s something that I definitely want to pursue, but again, it’s up for conversation. That conversation will determine our preparation for it. And hopefully it happens.

T&FN: Given your respective skillsets, some matchups in the 200 between a Michael Norman and a Noah Lyles would be amazing theater, but you’ve only met four times in that event.

Norman: Yeah, it’s not very often where we race.

T&FN: Would you like a world where you could race him more?

Norman: You know, honestly, I kind of like the racing-once -a-year type of vibe. I feel like the timing of when we race is just very random. The best opportunities for both him and me as athletes are where we’re at our peak. And if there’s a way that we can always race where we’re both at our peak, I think it would be so exciting. Just builds a lot of anticipation for that race all the time, because he’s obviously an outstanding athlete, but it would just be so much more exciting to kind of watch a race when we’re both at our peak instead of earlier in the year, because now we have different training cycles and different points of showing our progression.

I personally enjoy competition. I think it brings out the best of the athletes. So I wouldn’t mind racing him more often. It’s just for some reason we just don’t really race very often because of our differing schedules.

T&FN: When you defeated him last year in Rome—the only time that’s happened [in 4 career meetings]—I think you were a lane inside of him. Generally, do you have a favorite lane to be in the 200? Do you like to be inside someone so you can key off them? Or is it just a balls-out race no matter where you are?

Norman: I definitely prefer like 6 or 7; 5 is cool too, but 6 and 7 are—no, 5 and 6 are my favorites. I like running on turns, but if they’re tight, it makes it a little bit more challenging. So being a little bit on the outside helps with that, but when it comes to racing, it’s all about my own race pattern and technique that I’ve established with coach Watts. So even though we have, you know, athlete X, Y, and Z in lanes next to me, it’s not gonna change my race pattern or my race strategy going into it. Cause I’m always focused on what I need to do to make sure that I run my best time.

T&FN: This last year, obviously everyone under-raced; there weren’t a lot of opportunities. You’ve always tended to thrive on a light racing load compared to a lot of other sprinters, but would you and your coaches have preferred a few more opportunities?

Norman: The whole COVID season? Honestly I was more concerned about my health. I wasn’t upset with not racing just because I didn’t feel like I was a 100%. I was in great shape, but I just didn’t feel like I was race-sharp just because our availability to be on the track wasn’t even very frequent. Last year it was just a great opportunity for me to kind of do something different.

Would it have been great to get a few more races in a one-off events that I don’t typically run? Yes. 100% agree upon that. But I think we had a great year of training and a great year: one race, one real race, but we’ve had a lot of good time trials in practice. So I think at the end of the day it worked out perfectly. We accomplished what we needed to do. And more importantly, we ended the training year, the COVID season, healthy and stronger than we did last year.

T&FN: No regrets about not going to Europe?

Norman: No, it was a little bit too late for me personally.

T&FN: With family in Japan, has that made the prospect of a Tokyo games more exciting or more pressure-filled?

Norman: I think it’s more exciting. The way I look at it is it’s more exciting for my family. It just gives us the opportunity to come together and enjoy the Olympics. I have heritage there, it gives me an opportunity to represent both my American side and my Japanese side.

I wouldn’t say there’s any more pressure with competing in the Tokyo Olympics than there would be at any other Olympics. Every Olympics is going to be full of pressure, but I think there’s more of a sense of excitement because I get to go to my mom’s homeland and showcase my abilities with her family, you know?

T&FN: On the other side of that coin, there are reports that because of the pandemic, some Japanese voices are saying that it’s not going to be safe to host the Games even next year. If they were to be canceled, would you and your family feel a bigger sense of loss perhaps?

Norman: Yes, 100%. I think a sense of loss is going to be great just because, this is the one opportunity for me to really showcase my abilities on the world’s largest stage. I think it would just be huge disappointment just because of the anticipation that we’ve had and the preparation that I’m going through. I couldn’t even describe how disappointing that would be. So I’m hoping for the best, but I think it would be very disappointing for my family as well, because I think they’re just as excited or even more excited than any of us.

Michael Norman and Rai Benjamin started out as cross-town collegiate rivals, but ended up as teammates and training partners at USC. (BILL LEUNG)

T&FN: Looking back over your whole career, everything, including the smallest little PE class race, can you put your finger on the most important race in your life in terms of shaping who you are?

Norman: The most important race? Oooh. If I had to pick a one race… that made me who I am today… That’s tough. I think the most impactful race that made me who I was today would probably be my sophomore year in high school, state finals, 400. I lost to Kemonie Briggs from Long Beach Wilson [by 0.02], and I think that loss along with the [200] loss I had later that day is what steeled me into the athlete that I am today.

It helped me stay grounded. It was a super important loss in context, it kind of built the foundation of who I am today, just because it showed that there are other great athletes out there who are capable of doing just what you’re able to do or even better. It kept me 10 toes on the ground and it gave me even more motivation to become a better athlete than I was previously.

T&FN: Obviously you’ve been gifted to be one of the world’s fastest men, but do you ever find yourself questioning the nature of your gifts? Is there any moment where you might wish, “How come I can’t be this talented as a composer, a poet or a surgeon?” Do you ever wonder about those things?

Norman: I think about that every once in a while, you know? I think about, “What if I never found track? What would I do?” I feel like track is such a huge part of my life. I’ve devoted the majority of my life to just make sure that I put myself in the best situation as possible.

I think if I had never found track, I would find another occupation, hobby, sport or something to kind of fill that void. Would I have found it as early as I found track? I don’t know, but I think I definitely would have found something that would allow me to give the same type of effort I have given to track. And I think that is what would take me to the person that I would be if I didn’t have track, if that makes sense.

T&FN: It certainly does. This year has been a horrible one for stress, from COVID to the opposition facing Black Lives Matter to the upcoming election. How are you navigating and dealing with all of this?

Norman: The biggest lesson that I’ve learned through all this is to control the controllable. When you control the controllable and just focus on those moments, then the stress of everything else kind of goes away. But if you try to control things that are uncontrollable, then you’re adding extra stress to yourself that is avoidable. So throughout this year, it’s just, selfishly then unselfishly trying to control the controllable, making sure I’m in a good state of mind, and having great, great people around me. And I’ve had great people like my coaches to remind me what our main goal is.

T&FN: With all this time on lockdown and staying close to home, what are you doing with yourself when you’re not at the track?

Norman: I’ve been doing a lot, I’ve been really busy. I recently bought my first house. That’s been taking the majority of my time lately, but other than that, I’m trying to figure out better ways to showcase myself and show my identity. I want to be recognized as more than just that really good track & field athlete. I want to kind of be a legend or a mark on the sport when I’m done. I’m trying to build that identity right now. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing as well as learning how to speak Japanese and playing video games because that’s probably what I like to do the most.

T&FN: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind in this sport? How do you want people to remember you?

Norman: It’s always great to be remembered as an athlete who did well, the first person to run 42 or something like that, but I think what’s more important to me is for young athletes like myself, when I was in high school and middle school, to remember me as a sense of inspiration and motivation to showcase their own abilities or to show that they can not only be great in track, but in other aspects of their life. My biggest goal is to leave a legacy that is more inspiring than to be remembered as, “Oh, he ran this fast.”

T&FN: Now that we’ve mentioned legacies, what do you see yourself doing after track?

Norman: Ooh, tough question. You know, I went to college, graduated in 3 years with a degree in Communications, with the thought that I would want to be a broadcaster for NBC, kind of like what Ato Boldon does.

That’s my initial thought; that’s what I wanted, and still I’m very interested in it by the way. But as I grow and mature, that might change a little bit. So right now I would say sports broadcaster, but as time goes on—ask me the question again in 10 years and my mind might change, is basically what I’m saying. Who knows?

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