HE WANTS TO BECOME a figure who transcends track, who transcends sports; his outgoing, salesman personality is well-tailored to that.
Under the glibness and talk about Tik-Tok and walking a fashion runway in Paris, though, there is a side of Noah Lyles that the hardcore, old-guard track fan should appreciate.
In the aftermath of Lyles’ stunning American Record 19.31 to win 200 gold, Michael Johnson, the man whose record he just shaved by 0.01, came out for his first in-person meeting with the event’s new undisputed king.
Lyles’ reaction was part fan-boy, part self-analytical wonk.
“[Johnson] is somebody who used to whip up on my dad when he was running,” Lyles says. “It was a generation meeting another generation. I was talking about when I was in Tokyo for the Olympics; how, many times, I watched his race trying to figure out how I was going to win out of lane 3, because still to this day I don’t know how he did that.”
Johnson ran that legendary 19.32 in Atlanta ‘96 out of lane 3, the same lane Lyles was saddled with last year in Tokyo. Despite studying Johnson’s exploits, Lyles eventually ran to what for him was a disappointing Olympic bronze.
And in the greatest moment of his running life in Eugene, that’s what went through Lyles’ mind when he saw Johnson.
By the time he was given a microphone and a platform — 2 hours after his race in a late press conference — Lyles shifted over into his role as being a face of the sport.
When asked about his tattoo, “ICON”, that he pointed to in celebration, he became philosophic.
“Being an icon, that comes from running fast, but at the same time, that comes through trials and tribulations,” he said. “Tokyo was a trial, I had to get through it. Talking about mental health in that moment makes this moment great because it shows you can go through a dark storm and come out of it better than you were before, stronger than you were before.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to stay like that. Life is about hills and valleys. Right now I’m in a valley but I just came from a huge, huge hill I had to traverse and make it to the other side. That’s what being an icon is, showing people you can do it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a normal person, we can all get better.”
Then Lyles thought about the next few years:
“I have gone to the Met Gala, I’ve showed up at the VIP tent of the U.S. Open, I’ve been invited to speak to the Second Gentleman, I have been doing Colabs and walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week. Yeah the winning is good, that’s what’s going to make me money in the short run, but I need to be an influencer.
“Turning that into another market, if adidas sees that, that’s what they are going to love and they are going to push that more and more. All the sudden more companies not associated with track are going to see that and they are going to dip into that.
“All the sudden we’ve got American companies supporting a track athlete. ‘Oh, you do track, too? You want to throw a track meet together? Yeah, we can do that.’”
A big dream, but Lyles got to this point in his life by dreaming big. That and paying attention to the most minute of details.