EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Those two high schoolers really can fly. So can that relative newcomer to the 200 meters, LaShawn Merritt.
Be ready, Justin Gatlin, they’ll be chasing you.
A pair of 18-year-olds, Michael Norman and Noah Lyles, turned heads Friday after blistering performances in the semifinals at the U.S. Track and Field Trials. Norman won his heat over Gatlin. Lyles wasn’t really challenged in his heat.
Moments later, Merritt stole the show; the runner known more for the 400 turned in a 200 time of 19.74 seconds, the fastest mark in the world this season.
“These kids, man, they’re good,” the 34-year-old Gatlin said. “They’re good at what they do. They’re strong. They’re brave man.
“Got to compete against them like they’re real competitors.”
Oh, they’re real all right. Maybe a little in awe and perhaps still a little green, but definitely real.
After crossing the line in 20.21 seconds, Norman reached over and shook Gatlin’s hand. He leaned in and said, “Do you remember me?”
Gatlin sure did. They once hung out at a Nike Elite camp. Norman thought about bringing up their encounter before the race, but didn’t want to interrupt the sprinter who figures to be the biggest threat to Usain Bolt at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Probably a wise move. Gatlin was all business.
“They’re coming out to be giant killers,” he said.
And Gatlin would be the giant in the final Saturday. Or perhaps it’s Merritt, given the time he ran.
“Came off the curve with everybody, felt good so I made a move,” said Merritt, who’s dabbling in the 200 after already earning a spot by winning the 400. “The key was to win the race. That’s what I did.”
Track and Field Trials: Results | Daily Schedule | TV Schedule
Norman is from Murrieta, California, and plans to go to Southern California this fall. Lyles hails from Alexandria, Virginia, and will attend Florida.
They have a friendly rivalry on the junior circuit, with Norman beating out Lyles for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award. But it was Lyles who beat Norman in the only 200 race in which they’ve squared off – at USATF Junior National Championships in 2015.
“We’re pretty close. We talk to each other all the time,” Norman said.
Feed off each other, too.
“Watch them in the call room, they look at each other, and you can tell they’re like, `We got this,”‘ Gatlin said. “I’m going to rise to the occasion when it’s time.”
Anything one does, the other tries to do better.
“Saw him going and I thought, `Oh, dang, he ran outside Gatlin. He just passed Gatlin,”‘ Lyles said. “I was like, `Oh, I got to get out there.’
“I don’t mean to brag, but we’re pretty extraordinary. We come out here and try to do our best, then try to show up for the crowd.”
Don’t be surprised if they earn a spot on the 200. They are that talented.
“Trying to go to the Olympics – it’s been a goal for four years and we’re trying to make it happen,” Lyles said.
Of course, Gatlin will have something to say about it. He’s already qualified in the 100, but hopes to earn a place in the 200, too. Merritt will be in the mix as well. He had the fastest 200 time coming in and has only gotten stronger despite running three rounds of the 400 earlier at trials.
“Just have to stay humble, stay grounded, get some rest and come out tomorrow and do it all over again,” Merritt said.
Merritt could be in line to try to become the first man to win a 200-400 Olympic double since Michael Johnson in 1996. But that’s a decision for down the road.
“I’m just trying to take it a race at a time,” Merritt said.
Flying under the radar are Ameer Webb and veteran Tyson Gay, who didn’t make the team in the 100.
“That’s two rounds down, one more to go,” Lyles said. “We’re just trying to make something cool happen.”
MORE: LaShawn Merritt eyes Michael Johnson-like double in Rio