Michael Norman Now A Full-Bore Triple Threat

Norman has polished his drive phase in training though track access has been limited. (JEFF COHEN)

“AND NOW WE HAVE the same PR.” Michael Norman and Noah Lyles, that is. In the 100. The admiring quotee on Instagram was Lyles, for on July 20 in Ft. Worth, Norman stormed 9.86 in the short dash to become history’s second sub-10/sub-20/sub-44 sprinter (see sidebar). His company in the club is exalted 400 Olympic champion and World Record holder Wayde van Niekerk.

The venue was peculiar—a meet staged primarily for elite sprinters to satisfy sponsor contract requirements for a minimum number of races in a season—but Norman’s performance in his first century since high school was jaw-dropping. Only Usain Bolt—speaking of exalted company—and Michael Johnson have ever scored higher as all-around sprinters. (Continued below)

In a 4-man field socially distanced by empty lanes, Norman drove well and broke away around 50m with what looked on social media-posted video like whipcrack turnover more than bull-on-the-track power and blasted home 0.17 in front of training mate Rai Benjamin’s 10.03—an 0.66 improvement on the 400 hurdler’s best. Ronnie Baker placed 3rd in 10.23. The trailing wind measured 1.6.

More than being bowled over by his time, Norman says, “I think I was more excited about the opportunity to run [the 100], to be honest, just because I’ve been haggling [coaches Caryl Smith Gilbert and Quincy Watts] about running it since I came to SC, but they always told me to wait and wait and wait; I’m not ready and stuff like that. So when this opportunity finally came and Coach Watts agreed that I could run one hot 100 once, I had to take the most of that opportunity and just kind of run.

“But to come out with a time that fast, was reassuring. I think it’s more reassuring than anything else. Of course I’m excited about it, but it’s just very reassuring to know that the things that we’ve done under our circumstances have paid off and we’re on the right track to getting prepared for next year.”

Finding places to train in LA—sadly, a summer COVID-19 hot spot—has presented challenges. Says Norman, “I think it’s kind of finally settling down, but given the events of this year, our training has been very up and down, not very consistent and we didn’t have access to a lot of things, especially like a weight room and a track for one set of time. So just knowing that you’re getting the quality of work that we were with Coach Watts, making the most out of our situation from training at parks or, you know, some random places like hills, it was really reassuring.

“I knew Rai and I are both in great shape, but I just didn’t know how race ready we were going to be. But we were showing some good results in practice. So it was just kind of exciting to kind of get the opportunity to run the 100 finally.”

Luxuries like block practice have been in short supply all spring and summer. “I couldn’t even tell you the last time I touched blocks, to be honest,” Norman says. “It had to be like maybe a month ago. I don’t even know, but Coach Watts has explained to us that in order to be a great sprinter, you have to master each race. So we sat down and kind of looked at how I ran and what areas I needed to improve. And we just kind of focused on one specific area for a couple of weeks there—for like a week, actually—to just try to piece it together really well. It went better when the race came.”

What specific piece of the dash did Norman and Watts address? “I wouldn’t call it a weakness, but I guess he says I’m an impatient runner and I like to just come up,” Norman says. “So he just basically wanted me to focus on my drive phase and stay a little bit more patient and piece everything else together. ’Cause he said I do everything else pretty well. It’s just the beginning part [that needed attention].”

Since setting a straightaway PR of 10.27 in ’16, the half-lapping Norman had reached an Olympic Trials final (5th in 20.14), won the ’16 World Junior title and lowered his best to 19.70 last summer, a 2.18% improvement. In the 400, his 43.45 last year marked a 4.52% upgrade in performance from the 45.51 he ran in high school. Norman’s a quartermiler, right, the Collegiate Recordholder both outdoors and in? Sure—but not so fast. Or maybe fast is the operative term?

Norman’s newly authored advance in 100 best since prep days, a 3.99% jump forward, is superior to his progress in the 200. Lyles’ praise for his erstwhile prep comrade in the Trials 200 final is easy to understand. What event best suits Norman’s yet developing talent? Where does his future lie?

Perhaps with all of the above. “In high school looking back, definitely the 400 was the event of choice,” Norman says. “Just from when I was a freshman, I think I had the most improvement in that event and the most promise when it came to progress. But as the years progressed and I started taking [college] visits I’ve had a couple very notable people tell me that ‘your real event is the 100.’

“But then it’s like the conflict of do I continue the 400 or do I take attempts to run the 100? It was just a hard decision to make, but I ultimately decided to stick with the 400 because that’s what I was recruited to do. And it paid off well. I felt like I performed extremely well in the 400.

In college, Norman recalls, “Coach Caryl would always tell me, ‘Yeah, you’re a real 100m runner.’ Coach Watts was like, ‘You’re a 400-meter runner.’ So then it’s like, OK, what am I? Maybe we can just do both? So I’m working my way.

“I made a bet with Coach Caryl a long time ago. I said, ‘If I get a gold medal in the 400 then I could drop down to the 100.’ So I hope she holds that part because that’ll be kind of fun and interesting.”

If Norman had fared better at his first World Championships last fall, he might be calling in the bet now. Instead, he admits, “I was just struggling with injuries last year. I had an injury before USAs that I thought went away but was just lingering throughout the rest of the later half of the season. So I was just kind of battling it throughout the year.”

After placing 2nd in the USATF 400 (43.79), Norman raced 44.26 to win at the DL Final in Brussels. In his Doha semi, however, “My body just kind of told me, ‘Yeah, you better stop or something really bad will happen. So I did just kind of take the mature decision to run slow.” He jogged home in 45.94.

As such, Norman will probably pursue 400 goals first.

“I feel like the decision would be a lot easier,” he says, “if I had a better outcome at Worlds, but since I didn’t have a great outcome there’s still a part of me that really wants to redeem myself and basically run the 400 again.”

This time with a much better 100 PR in pocket.