Noah Lyles made it look so easy the last two seasons, his victories so predictable that pre-race fodder focused not on his competition, but on his socks, his hair and which dance he would perform in celebration afterward.
When Lyles spoke after winning the world 200m title in his global championships debut on Tuesday night, the 22-year-old told a very different story.
“The last three weeks was actually some of the hardest moments of my career. … I felt like I went through the wilderness,” he said after winning in 19.83 seconds in Doha, after training and competing in Europe and then the Qatari capital since early September. “I was isolated from my home, from family. It was just training and eating and sleeping and doing it in another country where people don’t speak your language.”
That is a powerful statement given the life of Lyles, one of three Americans to earn gold on Tuesday. The others were Donavan Brazier, the first U.S. 800m runner to win a world title (and in American record time) and Sam Kendricks, a repeat pole vault champion.
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Lyles was hospitalized as a young child with chronic asthma. He was in tears as a high school freshman, worried that in four years he would be kicked off a college track team because he would fail academically (Lyles is open that he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia and in remedial school classes). He cried again in 2017, when a torn hamstring kept him out of the USATF Outdoor Championships and thus out of the world championships, where he would have been a medal favorite.
Then on Sept. 8, Lyles tweeted that he had been homesick but felt loved for his family sent a care package. Four days later, mom Keisha Caine Bishop tweeted, “When one of your children is homesick in Europe and can’t come home, what do you do? Fly to them with homemade food, gifts, socks and love!”
Adversity was not part of Lyles’ story this season going into Doha. He has lost just once since finishing fourth at the 2016 Olympic trials coming out of high school (he turned pro rather than enroll at the University of Florida). He went into Tuesday’s final with the eight fastest times of the eight men in the field.
Yet difficulty was on his mind before the race, when he spoke with Bishop and his brother, fellow pro sprinter Josephus Lyles, to conclude his longest track season.
“Me and my mom, we sat down and we talked about the journey we’ve had,” he said. “We knew that this was it. This is where we were going to prove that we have the spirit, that we have the emotion, that we have the physical toughness to get through this long journey.”
The test came around the curve. In a surprise, Lyles trailed Brit Adam Gemili halfway through the race. He summoned not the flash of power associated with his silver hair (an homage to Dragon Ball Z character Goku), but instead muscled a more prolonged move into the lead. He held off Canadian Olympic silver medalist Andre De Grasse by .12. Ecuador’s Alex Quinonez took bronze.
“I knew I could swing off and grab that momentum,” Lyles said. “No matter where I was in the race, I will always be able to come back because I’ve been in last place, and I’ve grabbed the win.”
He did, in his slowest time in 10 meets dating to May 2018.
“Closer than I thought it was going to be,” said Lyles, who all year has reminded himself that he would be world champion, either by phone notes or, every day after practice, hitting his car window and repeating, “I’m going to be world champion,” as music blasted, he reportedly told the BBC after Tuesday’s win.
Lyles also revealed that he wanted to run 19.3 seconds, taking his personal best down from 19.5 and perhaps breaking Michael Johnson‘s American record 19.32 from the Atlanta Olympics. And moving closer to Usain Bolt‘s world record of 19.19.
“People are trying to say they want you to run a world record. You’re just trying to win a gold medal,” Lyles said. “This season was probably not my hardest season physically, but my hardest season mentally.”
Lyles, who lacks no charisma or confidence with the word “ICON” tattooed on his side, could not wrap his head around the accomplishment.
“It’s like something you’ve imagined so many times in your head,” he said, “that once you actually achieve it, it’s like, I thought we already did this.”
He also would not allay hype for next year, when Lyles and world 100m champion Christian Coleman are both expected to race the 100m and the 200m, looking to succeed Bolt in pulling off the Olympic sprint double. Lyles said he can still improve, notably in his start and top-end speed.
Around the time of Lyles’ win, Bolt’s Instagram story published a black background with these words in white: “Usain Bolt Who???” That conjured memories of a Lyles Instagram story from late August, when he broke a Bolt meet record and posted an image of himself holding his index finger to his mouth in a shushing gesture with the caption, “Meet Record Bolt who?” Perhaps a little more motivation for 10 months from now.
“On the right day with the right conditions and the right training,” Lyles said, “hopefully a world record will pop up.”
In other Tuesday finals, Brazier broke a 34-year-old American record to become the first U.S. 800m runner to win a world title. Brazier, who clocked 1:42.34 to take .26 off Johnny Gray‘s mark, moved to the lead with 300 meters to go and stretched it out to 1.13 seconds over silver medalist Amel Tuka of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Brazier goes into the Olympic year looking to become the first American to win an Olympic 800m title since Dave Wottle did so wearing a hat in Munich in 1972. Brazier, 22, may have to fend with the return of double Olympic champion and world-record holder David Rudisha, who hasn’t competed in more than a year, partly due to injury.
“I look up to my idol Muhammad Ali, and he won his first world championship at 22 years old,” Brazier told Lewis Johnson on NBCSN. Brazier runs for the Nike Oregon Project, whose founder, Alberto Salazar, was on Monday banned four years in a doping case. Brazier, who has a clean record, is coached by Pete Julian, not Salazar.
Kendricks repeated as world champion in the pole vault by clearing 5.97 meters and beating Louisiana-raised Swedish 19-year-old Mondo Duplantis on prior misses. Next year, the first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve will look to better his Rio Olympic finish of third.
Worlds continue Wednesday, highlighted by Rio Olympic champion Omar McLeod in the final rounds of the 110m hurdles.
In non-finals Tuesday, the one-two finishers from the USATF Outdoor Championships, Shakima Wimbley and Kendall Ellis, were eliminated in the 400m semifinals. Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas, undefeated for two years, and 2017 World gold and silver medalists Phyllis Francis of the U.S. and Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain reached Thursday’s final.
The women’s 200m final on Wednesday will include none of the reigning Olympic or world medalists. Rio Olympic champion Elaine Thompson was the latest to withdraw before Tuesday’s semifinals, reportedly with an Achilles injury after she placed fourth in the 100m on Sunday. Brit Dina Asher-Smith, the fastest in the world last year, is an overwhelming favorite given nobody else in the final ranked in the top 13 in the world in 2018.
NBC Olympics senior researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Doha.
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