Through Michael Norman‘s career as a 400m sprinter, from his pre-pandemic USC seasons through winning the world title last year, he stored what three acclaimed college coaches said while he was in high school.
Out of a multitude of suitors, Quincy Watts and Caryl Smith Gilbert of USC and then nine-time Olympic champion Carl Lewis of Houston separately shared the same verdict with Norman.
“We’re recruiting you for the 400m,” Norman recalled Thursday, “but looking at the way you run and your natural ability, we think you’re a 100m runner.”
He is ready to put that to the test.
Norman, 25, is shifting his focus from the 400m to the 100m and plans to race the shorter event at July’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, where three spots are at stake for August’s world championships in Budapest.
“We’ve always had this idea that once I develop and accomplish the goals that I want to do in the 400m, that the goal will be to drop down to the 100m,” he said. “I can comfortably say that I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in the 400m and I can start challenging myself and trying something new in attempting to medal and break records in the 100m.”
If all goes well, Norman could race the 100m at the Paris Olympics.
“The plan for 2023 is more of a setup for 2024,” he said. “Everything I’m doing now is setting good habits in preparation for the Olympics. So when it comes to Olympic year, I can just keep building.”
Norman has been a 100m prospect for years. Before the pandemic, he said that he had a deal with his then-coach Smith Gilbert (who has since moved to Georgia) that he could switch to the 100m if he won Tokyo Olympic gold.
In 2020, Norman had the freedom to run the 100m due to the Olympic postponement and cancellation of other major meets.
He clocked 9.86 seconds in Fort Worth, Texas, and it ended up being the fastest time in the world for the year. In 2021, Norman returned to the 400m and placed fifth in Tokyo as a medal favorite, if not the gold-medal favorite.
When Norman at last reached his goal by winning the 400m at worlds last July, the switch to the 100m was not top of mind. A banana was. That was his craving after enduring a zero-sugar diet to accomplish his goal.
Weeks after worlds, Norman had a season review with Watts, who suggested he give the 100m some thought. Watts is best known as the 1992 Olympic 400m champion, but he also won high school and Junior Olympic 100m titles.
Norman talked to his dad, who ran for L.A. Valley College, where he met Norman’s mom, also a sprinter.
“I was kind of torn because … I worked so hard to get back to where I wanted to be, got a world championship title, and I knew that moving onto the 2023 season it was going to be a continuation of that, like a build-up,” said Norman, who is tied as the fourth-fastest 400m sprinter in history. “I felt like I was heading towards world record territory [in the 400m].”
He also knew that he ran that 9.86, plus broke 10 in all three of his 100m races in 2021 (after Tokyo), without deviating from 400m training. If he wants to focus on the 100m, he must start now or wait until after the 2024 Olympics, he reasoned.
“If you’re 400m world champion, you don’t get that coveted title of the world’s fastest man,” he said. “[The 100m] is the race that the world watches. … I think the moment’s now.
“I feel like I’m reaching my prime.”
Norman’s move could set up a showdown at the world championships among the reigning world champions at 100m (Fred Kerley), 200m (Noah Lyles) and 400m.
That’s if Norman and Lyles can make the top three at nationals, where the field could also include 2019 World champion Christian Coleman and 2022 World silver and bronze medalists Marvin Bracy-Williams and Trayvon Bromell.
Kerley, the 2019 U.S. 400m champion who successfully transitioned to the 100m, has a bye into worlds as defending champion.
NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said he needs to see a sample of Norman in 100m races this spring to gauge his chances come nationals. But that Norman has run 9.86, the same time that Kerley ran to win last year’s worlds, is a good sign.
“[Sprinters in different events] all look at the 100m, and they go, ‘That’s where I really want to be,'” Boldon said. “Most of them can’t do it. Michael Norman is different in that he can.”
Norman’s goal this year is to win three gold medals at worlds — 100m, 4x100m and 4x400m. He hopes to run the 400m at least once before worlds to boost his case to 4x400m relay selectors, though it may not need any boosting.
If he doesn’t make the world team in the 100m, he can still go to worlds in the 400m given his bye as reigning champion in that event.
“In a world where things go absolutely terrible, then I will be defending my title in the 400m,” he said, “but if things go the way that I plan it to go, then I’ll be fighting for a new title.”
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