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Noah Lyles is the fastest man in track and could be the star the sport needs

In sprinting’s post-Usain Bolt vacuum, Noah Lyles leads the pack. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
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BOSTON — Noah Lyles spent many days in hospital rooms, and in them he learned he loved to draw. There was not much else to do for a kid, just 4 or 5 years old, with an active mind and boundless energy. As he aged and the asthma that troubled him became manageable, if not eliminated, his passion for art stayed with him and evolved, a joyful remnant from tough times.

At first, Lyles drew anime characters and nothing else. As his doodling and painting grew more meaningful to him, his colors matched his moods. Now, he said, when he is in deep thought and painting in the studio in his home in Clermont, Fla., his work includes deep purples and blues, like outer space. In high school, while he transitioned from overactive boy to one of the fastest sprinters on Earth, he started drawing flowers. He especially liked the cherry blossom, which carried personal significance. His family spent spring days viewing them in Washington, D.C., a short drive from their home in Alexandria, Va. The cherry blossom spoke to him.

“It flowed like water, but it was still jagged like a tree,” Lyles said. “It was still hard. I felt that that’s almost a way you have to be in track. You have to be firm, but you also want to flow. You want to be cool. And then you bloom something beautiful."

Lyles, who turned 22 last week, might be on the cusp of his own full bloom, from track and field’s next big thing to the face of the sport in America. Three years ago, Lyles turned professional alongside his brother, Josephus, after graduating from T.C. Williams High, skipping college — an uncommon path in track — to sign with Adidas. So far, he has fulfilled vast promise while making the track world eager for what comes next.

Simone Biles keeps pushing boundries

Noah Lyles has run the 200 and 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt did at the same age, dominating the 200 while flashing the potential to do the same in the 100. In 2017, he set the world record in the indoor 300 meters. This week, at the U.S. outdoor championships in Des Moines, Lyles will attempt to bag another major title — he won the 100 at the U.S. championships a year ago without his major rivals in the field — as he takes a step toward what will be, barring injury or shock, his first appearance in the Olympics.

One year out from the Tokyo Games, the premier men’s sprinting events remain defined less by any runner in the blocks than by one who isn’t. Bolt’s retirement has left a vacuum, a lack of a signature star, and Lyles would like to fill it.

This month at the Diamond League meet in Lausanne, Switzerland, Lyles ran the fastest 200 meters since Bolt and Yohan Blake at the 2012 London Olympics and the eighth-best time ever, a blistering 19.50 seconds despite — as track aficionados are quick to point out, with no shortage of awe — a slight head wind. Just three men have run halfway around a track faster: Michael Johnson, Blake and Bolt.

Before that race, Lyles tweeted, “My socks keep yelling at me: ‘It’s time to go Plus Ultra.’ ” For the uninitiated, that is a motto from the Japanese superhero cartoon “My Hero Academia,” images from which appeared on his socks. For every race, Lyles wears socks emblazoned with different characters: Speed Racer, R2-D2, the Incredibles, etc. In a new Tokyo 2020 commercial, NBC features Lyles in a montage of American athletes that includes Tiger Woods and Simone Biles. The camera lingers on Lyles’s blue Sonic the Hedgehog socks.

Lyles is an unapologetic extrovert, eager to reveal his personality. He plans to rap alongside U.S. pole vaulter Sandi Morris and a Swiss band at a Diamond League meet he’s competing in this August, performing a song he helped write. At the Boston Marathon, Adidas sold a T-shirt and socks he designed. In January, he strutted down the runway at Paris Fashion Week. He wants to make track and field a bigger deal in the United States, and he and his family discuss how to make it happen.

“We talk about the sport and what could transcend the sport,” Lyles said last month, lounging in a hotel suite the day before the Boost Boston Games. “Yes, it’s nice to be fast, but what could take you over the top? Usain Bolt, household name. Transcended the sport. Michael Phelps, swimmer, transcended the sport. What is going to take you from being just popular in track to being popular in the world? By being different or by being you. You can’t get to that point by being somebody else.”

You also can’t without winning the most important events, which is why he designed this season’s training regimen with this week in mind. He was 19 at the 2016 Olympic trials, when he finished fourth in the 200, just missing a spot while breaking a 31-year-old high school record. At the 2017 national championships, he pulled a hamstring in a qualifying heat and sat out the remainder, preventing him from making the U.S. world championships team.

“I’m sure his goal is not to just be on that list” of fastest times, Johnson said. “It’s to win major championships. He certainly has the potential.”

“He doesn’t have a gold medal worth anything yet,” Olympic medalist and NBC analyst Ato Boldon said.

That’s one reason Lyles will run only the 200 in Des Moines, sitting out the 100. Early in the season he beat rival Christian Coleman, who is still regarded as America’s best in the distance, in a 100 final. But his coach, Lance Brauman, wants to conserve Lyles to ensure he secures a spot at the worlds in Qatar in the fall. Lyles’s ambitions, though, demand he eventually take on the 100.

“He’s strategizing as to how he’s eventually going to rule that 100 or at least contend for that 100,” Boldon said. “I’m sure Christian Coleman will have something to say about that. But what Noah Lyles is going to discover very quickly is, if you want to be the man, you have to win the 100.”

In a shocker, Katie Ledecky loses at world championships

Spoiler: Lyles has figured it out. In June, he stated his ultimate goal, the challenge driving him even more than winning a national or world championship this year: In Tokyo, Lyles wants to win the 200, the 100 and the 4x100 relay. That feat would launch him into superstardom.

“I definitely want to walk away from the Olympics with three gold medals,” Lyles said.

No worries

Keisha Caine Bishop made sure her children lived in a spirited household. Once a year, she would bust into Noah and Josephus’s room in the middle of the night, flick on the lights and shout, “Who wants ice cream!?” But from the start, Noah, the oldest of her two sons, stood out.

One day, Keisha watched Noah throw long underwear and green dye into the laundry machine: He wanted to go to bible study dressed as Peter Pan. He once replied to her direction to read a book by asking to be called “Wind Boy” rather than Noah. When she asked him to clean his room, he would sometimes backflip there, come back and ask, “What was I supposed to do again?"

When he was asked where his outlook came from, Lyles smiled.

“Well,” he said, “I was born.”

“It’s natural,” said Lyles’s sister, Abby. “Because I’m not like that.”

Lyles’s childhood was not all joy. Every six weeks during one stretch of his early youth, Lyles would have to visit the hospital and be hooked up to a nebulizer to treat his asthma. During allergy season, twice a year, he would miss a month of school. (Lyles repeated first grade, which is why he and Josephus, younger by a year, are often mistaken for twins.) He often would sleep sitting up, with Keisha holding him in the middle of the night, because if he lay on his back he could not breathe.

Keisha home-schooled her children until second grade, the unexpected result of a thesis paper she wrote toward her master’s degree in education: She expected to argue against the practice but came to believe in it instead. When he started going to traditional school, Lyles struggled. Keisha had suspected Noah had a learning disorder, and after a year, he was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. Keisha would tell him, “Everybody learns differently, and this is the way your brain learns.” Because of how he learned, Lyles hated school. One morning, as Keisha loaded her kids into the car for school, Noah tried to run away.

Noah Lyles is out front in the race to claim Usain Bolt’s sprinting throne

As he grew, Lyles’s asthma became more manageable. He had his tonsils and adenoids removed when he was 6, which made his hospital stays less frequent and enabled him to play sports. Medication and inhalers got better. In high school, he started working with a chiropractor and nutritionist, which further tamped his asthma. He still lives with the possibility his asthma could flare if he catches a cold, potentially at a meet.

“I try not to worry,” Lyles said. “If you worry, that’s just going to cause more stress. And stress is not fun, and I don’t believe in a life that’s not fun.”

Lyles funneled his energy into sports. He played everything except T-ball — too slow — but settled eventually on track. It was, after all, in his genes. Keisha was a 1991 All-Met at Wilson, earned all-conference honors at Seton Hall and competed at the 1996 Olympic trials. She met Lyles’s father on the Seton Hall track team, and after college they settled in Gainesville, Fla., to train professionally. He pursued a career, but Keisha left the sport, burned out and ready to move on.

Josephus had the idea to go pro out of T.C. Williams first. One day, Noah was sitting on the family’s living room floor, building Legos and watching the world championships. “Mom,” he said, “my country needs me.”

At first, Keisha said, “I was totally against it.” The Lyles brothers committed to run at Florida, but as they researched a professional path, it made sense. Graduating from high school during an Olympic year, more money and better contracts were available. Adidas offered to pay for college if they wanted to attend. Lyles always had been eager to tread his own path, and Keisha came around, too, believing her sons could set an example.

“We wanted people to start thinking outside the box when it comes to track and field,” Keisha said.

They moved to the National Training Center in Clermont. At first, they were lonely, calling home nightly to talk about how much older all their training partners were. Noah dominated immediately, and beyond the poorly timed injury in 2017, his ascent has not slowed.

“I’ve never had any regrets on this path,” Lyles said. “It’s only been fun and pleasurable and great moments and a huge jump forward. I don’t usually like to take the normal way, as a lot of people can see now.”

Ever the showman

Lyles views his races as part-competition, part-performance. As his competitors step into the blocks and hear their names announced, they may raise their hand or nod their head. Lyles creates a new routine for every race. He enters the blocks with his race strategy so honed it is embedded in his mind.

“The only thing I have to focus on is,” Lyles said, “what is my intro going to be?”

Before a Diamond League 200-meter final in Rome this summer, he performed an introduction in the style of a Power Ranger morphing into character, whipping his arms and gyrating.

“They’ll do some cool moves, and then they’ll transform,” Lyles said. “It was kind of one of those moments. But that was my first time doing that one. But I liked it because I practiced it a few times, so I wouldn’t forget when it came down to do it.”

In that race he faced Michael Norman, a friendly rival from Southern California and part of the elite pack of young American sprinters. Norman and Lyles raced neck-and-neck to the tape, and Norman edged Lyles, 19.70 seconds to Lyles’s 19.72, Lyles’s first loss in the 200 in three years.

In response to the defeat, Lyles beamed, embraced Norman and high-fived fans. When he found his mother in the crowd, they hugged.

“Noah, that was a great race!” Keisha told him.

“I know!” Lyles replied.

Before Bolt arrived, elite sprinters carried themselves like prizefighters, calling out rivals in the media and prowling around the start line, staring down foes. Bolt turned races into parties with his dancing and posing, and even his competitors knew who would win, so the sport turned more collegial. When Lyles hears stories from the days of, say, Maurice Greene and Johnson trash-talking, he doesn’t understand.

“I’m just like: ‘Why? Why are you so focused on somebody else rather than having fun with yourself?’ ” Lyles said.

“ . . . Too many people get caught up in not having fun when they run. A lot of people get very confused when they come up to me [after the loss]. ‘You must be feeling really bad.’ I’m thinking: ‘Why would I feel bad? I just had one of the funnest races I had in a long time.’ I’d say last year, all of the races were fun for the times. Personally, it was kind of boring.”

Brauman, Lyles’s coach, said he has never seen Lyles down on the track, that he loves every practice session.

“Very seldom do you give him a workout he can’t handle,” Brauman said. “And when he can’t, he thinks it’s funny.”

Some sprinters in his generation take inspiration from Lyles’s outlook. Matthew Boling, the Texas high schooler who became a sensation after breaking the U.S. prep record in the 100, calls Lyles his favorite athlete.

“Last year, I kind of struggled with still having fun,” Boling said. “But Noah Lyles, he’s always having fun. It’s his job, too. He gets paid for it, but he still finds a way to make it fun and not stressful. I looked up to that, and I used that a lot in this season, to not let the pressure get to me.”

Not everyone is a fan, including some of his competition. In a season-opening meet, Lyles edged Coleman by six hundredths of a second in the 100 by running a personal-best 9.86. Afterward, in an Instagram post, he declared: “Today starts my legacy for becoming a 100 & 200 runner. And they say no one man should have all that power.”

The post rankled Coleman.

“Some of y’all got the game messed up,” he wrote on Twitter. “The name of the game is World medals. But [a personal record] in May is cool for social media.” He added in another tweet, “if your goal is to run fast in May to taunt and flex online then your priorities aren’t straight.”

Boldon, perhaps the keenest observer of track and field in America, called the Lyles-Coleman social media tiff “a peek behind the curtain.” He said sprinters today do not like each other any more than those of his generation. They’re just better at hiding it.

“There’s only one spot at the top of that podium,” Boldon said. “These guys, they have annoyances with each other. I could name for you two or three sprinters who feel like Noah preens too much, too much dancing, always something. That’s fine. I don’t know why they try to hide or subdue that part. My thing is, let it out. It’s okay. It’s competition.”

Lyles does not question whether he can balance his showmanship with excellence. Anyone who wondered about his competitiveness could take a lesson from how he responded to losing to Norman: by running one of the fastest 200s ever. If his demeanor upsets other sprinters, Lyles has no problem solving differences in between a prerace Power Rangers routine and a post-race dance.

“It definitely puts a target on your back,” Lyles said. “That post-Bolt era was a time when, if you did anything like that, they would be on you. I don’t think that’s completely gone away. If you do that, people will be like, ‘You better back that up.’ So, yeah, I’m going to do it knowing people are looking at me like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make sure I beat him.’ But you just go in knowing that. I already know that my plan is solid. I know that I want to win. So I will win.”

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