On Aug. 4, 2021, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton became the youngest man to race in an individual Olympic track final in 125 years. He finished fourth in the 200m in 19.93 seconds. Nobody else has ever run that fast that young.
While the top three finishers prepared to receive medals, Knighton entered a tunnel at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. He wept.
“I was kind of sad, but I couldn’t really be bothered about it,” he said this week. “I was just getting started on my career.”
Mike Holloway remembers that night. He wasn’t allowed in that area of the stadium, but he reached Knighton by phone.
“He was obviously upset,” said Holloway, who along with Jonathan Terry coaches Knighton. “I was just like, ‘Look, man, remember how you feel. And remember, you don’t want to ever feel this way again. So every training session we do next year, remember how you feel right now and that you never want to feel this way again.'”
Last Saturday, Knighton lined up to race a 200m for the first time since the Tokyo Games. It was at the untelevised LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, at best the third-biggest meet of the day after the Penn Relays and Drake Relays.
At 3:35 p.m. local time, the LSU track and field Twitter account posted a single-camera, zoomed-out video of the first of five heats of the men’s 200m. There is no commentary. Just the public address announcer. It becomes clear about 50 meters into the race that Knighton is the man in lane five with a white-to-black Adidas uniform, pulling away.
Knighton crossed the finish line and did not have a view of a scoreboard. Holloway was there. What did I run, Knighton asked. Holloway told him: 19.49 seconds. No, I didn’t, Knighton replied.
“So, you know, he was pretty crunk about it,” Holloway said, “which he should be.”
Knighton, who became the talk of the sprints last June by breaking Usain Bolt‘s teenage records, ran a time that only three other men had ever beaten: Bolt (four times in Olympic or world championships finals, including his 19.19 world record), Yohan Blake (Bolt’s primary rival in 2012) and Michael Johnson (when he clocked the then-world record 19.32 at the 1996 Olympics in golden shoes).
Knighton did it more than three years younger than any of them. And in his first 200m of the season in the April following an Olympic year, when many sprinters are discarding cobwebs.
“I was kind of shocked,” Knighton said by phone after classes at Tampa Hillsborough High School on Wednesday. “I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was coming this early into the season. I also didn’t know that it was going to come this early in my career, either. I thought I was going to run 19.4 when I’m like, 20 or something, like when I get stronger and older.”
Of course, Knighton’s phone blew up on Saturday evening. By Monday, some teachers and students remarked about it, but nothing excessive. Knighton sat in his Algebra 2 honors class and retweeted Olympic teammate Michael Cherry‘s tweet to his 7,000 followers.
“Football is king” in Tampa, said Knighton. Two years ago, Knighton faced what he called the biggest challenge of his life: having to give up football — already being courted by SEC schools as a wide receiver, listed at 6 feet, 3 inches — to go pro in track two weeks before turning 17. He had started sprinting as a high school freshman to complement football.
Last Saturday night, four weeks before his high school graduation, Knighton watched that race video two more times, trying to fathom how he lowered his personal best from an already astonishing 19.84 at last year’s Olympic Trials.
“I still don’t know,” said Knighton, who had one other race angle from a friend who is his videographer. “The only answer I’ve got for it is I just ran fast.”
Somebody walked up to him at the track and gave him the casing that fired out of the starter’s gun.
“We just need to be patient with him and not put expectations and stuff like that on him,” said Holloway, a University of Florida coach since 1996, guiding Olympic and world champions across the flat sprints and hurdles. “It’s hard when the guy’s breaking Bolt’s records.”
NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said the Bolt comparisons are now apropos given the unprecedented circumstances of Saturday.
“This, to me, is a bigger shock than anything you saw in Beijing,” when Bolt broke the 100m and 200m world records at the 2008 Olympics, Boldon said. “It’s more significant. Because to have this kid, in his opener, nobody around him, he’s not even 18 and a half yet.
“I wish America loved track and field more. Because what this kid is doing is LeBron-esque. It is Venus-esque. It is Serena-esque.”
Knighton plans to continue to race in domestic meets through the USATF Outdoor Championships next month, where he will bid to qualify for July’s world championships in Eugene, Oregon. His goal: “I want to be world champion, or I want to be on the podium.”
The focus is on the 200m for now, but he could try to make the 2024 Olympic team in the 100m, too. The question on many minds: What about Bolt’s 200m world record of 19.19?
“I just want to keep shaving down on my personal best,” Knighton said. “I want the world record. But if it doesn’t come, I won’t be really bothered about it. I’ve still got 10 years left.”
Boldon said Knighton has model race mechanics for his age, certainly better than an 18-year-old Bolt. Holloway, who came on board in January 2021 when Knighton turned pro, credited Terry, who still coaches him locally and “taught him to respect hard work and to be a warrior.”
“The key now is, we’ve got to remember how we did it [in Baton Rouge], we’ve got to go back and do it again and again and again,” Holloway said, looking ahead to bigger meets. “We’re all grounded. We all understand that what happened in Baton Rouge in late April, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
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