On Thursday afternoon after school, Naol Gurmu sat among track and cross-country teammates in the front row of the T.C. Williams gymnasium bleachers and raised his hand. Noah Lyles pointed at Gurmu, a freshman cross-country runner, signaling it was his turn. “Did you bring your medals with you?” Gurmu asked.
Only four years ago, Lyles, 22, had been one of the kids sitting in the bleachers before him. Now he walked to the side wall and grabbed a blue box. It contained one of the gold medals Lyles had won this month at the IAAF world championships in Doha, Qatar. Lyles handed it to Gurmu and lifted off the top. “Ooooooh!” rang a chorus of teenagers. They pulled out phones to take pictures. Lyles instructed them to pass it around as he continued answering questions with his brother, Josephus, a fellow T.C. Williams alum and track professional.
“It was amazing,” Gurmu said. “I don’t really know how to describe it.”
Lyles returned to his alma mater after the greatest moment of a career in full ascent. Lyles won two gold medals at his first world championships, pulling away for a victory in the 200 meters, his best event, and running the anchor leg in the 4x100 relay as the American men set a national record and ended a 12-year skid without major championship gold in the event.
The performance validated the widely held belief that Lyles, with a potential challenge likely to come from relay teammate and 100-meter world champion Christian Coleman, is the future of American men’s track and field and perhaps the sport’s brightest global star leading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Lyles’s life had been a whirlwind since he won the relay gold medal. He stayed up until 4 a.m. that night between media obligations and treatment, then rose hours later for another round of interviews. He had just returned to his home in Clermont, Fla. Josephus was coming to Alexandria, where the brothers moved before high school, to see specialists to treat nagging injuries. It was Noah Lyles’s idea to join him and visit his old school, where he talked with former coaches and teachers and saw a case filled with trophies and medals he had won.
“Sometimes you need a little bit of nostalgia,” Lyles said. “Or you need somebody to celebrate [with]. The greatest part about having family there at the world championships after you race is having somebody to connect with that knows what you went through and has seen you work as hard as you have. It’s that connection you want to gravitate to.”
The two finals in which he earned gold medals were entirely different experiences. Lyles, a connoisseur of Japanese anime, dyed his hair silver for the 200 final, a nod to the Dragon Ball Z character Goku. When Goku reaches his final form, called Ultra Instinct, his hair turns silver. As his name was announced before he settled into the starting blocks, Lyles reached both hands into the sky. He then pulled his fists to his chest and howled, mimicking, he said, when Goku learned the Spirit Bomb.
“It’s like one of his most powerful moves,” Lyles said. “And it is basically him asking for energy from all beings, organisms, in the universe.”
Lyles was even with two competitors around the turn, but he pulled away for a comfortable victory. Lyles is an irrepressible extrovert, and typically he exudes joy after a victory — or even, as was the case when Michael Norman edged him in a Diamond League race this summer, a close loss. When he crossed in Doha, he closed his eyes, slowed and dropped to his knees.
“It was me being out of energy, to be honest,” Lyles said. “It was me being on my last few legs. These were my last efforts. This was everything I had. When I cross that line, I do usually have a lot of energy. I’ve imagined how that race would go after I won tons of times. That was the last thing on the list of how I thought I would end it.”
Lyles had been aiming for these world championships for the past year. In 2017, a hamstring injury cost him the chance to compete. While he had been recognized as one of the world’s fastest men, he had yet to claim a major title. When he bagged one in his signature event, he felt relief.
“Physically, mentally, emotionally, I was pushing everything to track and field,” Lyles said. “In sci fi terms, if you’re on a spaceship and you’re like, ‘I need all powers on the shields!’ It was like that.”
Lyles’s triumph in the 4x100, captured with Coleman, Justin Gatlin and Michael Rodgers, led to a different form of celebration. He crossed the line screaming, with his right index finger in the air. Lyles then ran straight to Coleman for a flying chest bump. After both sprinters mugged for separate camera, they found one another again. Coleman grabbed the top of the baton as Lyles gripped the bottom half, and Lyles threw his arm around Coleman.
Track devotees observe the relationship between Lyles and Coleman with curiosity. They are 22 and 23 years old, respectively, and the consensus declares them the two fastest men on the planet. They probably will run the first and final legs of the 4x100 relay at the Olympics in Tokyo. They approach the sport in different ways: Lyles wants to transcend track and radiates exuberance; Coleman is all business and has shared little of himself with the public.
The personality difference has led to tension. After Lyles upset Coleman in a 100 final in the spring, he declared it the start of his reign. Coleman took umbrage on social media. Lyles told an NBC Sports reporter their relationship was “not good.” Even after they won a title together, Lyles remains uncertain of how Coleman views him.
“I have no idea,” Lyles said, laughing. “Straight up. I have no idea if it changed anything. I’m as much curious as everybody else.”
But what about how he views their relationship?
“I felt like we were really friends,” Lyles said. “I actually loved looking at the pictures of the 4x100 ending. When me and Christian chest-bumped each other, we’re both looking back, we’re both hype as a mug, we’re looking at the camera. I love those pictures. Those are some of my favorite pictures to look at.
“Not everybody is best friends. That’s just life. Some people you have a relationship that’s like an arm’s length, and some people you’re really close with, and some people you’re just on a hi-bye basis.”
What mattered was that Coleman and Lyles won together. On Thursday, Lyles brought the medals back to his school. He posed for pictures with students and held a Q&A with Josephus for students on the track and field and cross-country teams.
Lyles will shift his focus to Tokyo, where he aims to add the 100 — and a third gold medal — to his program. Having run the 200 in 19.50 seconds this year, Lyles could challenge Usain Bolt’s record of 19.19 seconds by then. “I don’t put it past me,” Lyles said.
For all he has accomplished, Lyles still has so much ahead of him, only four years removed from walking the T.C. Williams halls. One student offered a reminder, asking how he made it to the Olympics.
“I haven’t made it to the Olympics yet,” Lyles replied, smiling.
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