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For Noah Lyles at the U.S. track and field trials, winning isn’t everything

Noah Lyles finished third in his semifinal heat in the 100 meters at the U.S. track and field trials Saturday night. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Since at least early 2019, Noah Lyles has made it a mission to win three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. As a constant motivating reminder, he wrote that he would do so on the home screen of his phone. He has never been shy, in public or to himself, about his grand goals.

So it came as a surprise Saturday night at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials when Lyles, after he reached the semifinals with a third-place finish in his first-round heat in the 100 meters, offered an appraisal that reset his expectations.

“To be honest, everything is really in preparation to getting me to the 200 as far as anything is concerned,” Lyles said after finishing the 100 in 9.95 seconds at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

Lyles, a T.C. Williams High graduate seeking to make his first Olympic team, has dominated the world in the 200 for three years and has proved a force in the 4x100 relay, winning the 2019 world championship in both. The 100 has proved more vexing. He believes he has made progress in training, but Lyles had not broken 10 seconds in the event this year before the trials. More than 20 American men had run faster in the 100 than him. A loaded American field probably will require Lyles to surpass his personal best of 9.86 seconds.

Is the gold medal in the 100 still a goal? Is making the U.S. 100-meter team still an imperative?

“I think I’ve been trying to understand that myself,” Lyles said.

Noah Lyles enters the U.S. Olympic track and field trials with a higher purpose and a big challenge

Lyles’s shift in mind-set came Friday during a chat with his mother, Keisha Caine Bishop. She asked Lyles, “Why are you concerned about the 100?” Lyles told her his competitive instincts took over, and he believed he was good at it.

“And then she asked me if I was nervous about the 200,” Lyles said. “I said, ‘Heck no.’ She’s like, ‘Well, why are you worried about your side chick?’ I said, ‘You know what, that’s a good point.’ I ain’t worried no more. Whatever I get is what I get.”

What Lyles got Saturday was his best 100 in more than two years. Running in a jaguar-print suit, he recovered from a subpar start to finish behind Ronnie Baker (9.88) and Fred Kerley (9.93). According to the NBC broadcast, Lyles reached a top speed of 26.3 mph, fastest in the field.

“As soon as I started running, I knew I’d be chasing people down,” Lyles said.

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Though he has taken pressure off himself, Lyles could still be a factor in the final Sunday night. If he improves his start, his speed could carry him to the team.

“I got a lot more,” Lyles said. “I’ve been doing really good in practice. Especially in those first 10 meters, I didn’t do as good as I’ve been showing in practice.”

Lyles will need to improve in a field that includes the six fastest men in the world this year. In a wind-aided heat, Trayvon Brommell, the favorite, ran the fastest time of the night at 9.84 seconds. Justin Gatlin, the bronze medalist at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 who is trying to make his fourth Olympics at 39, secured his place in the semifinals with a 9.93.

“Some days at practice, I feel 39,” Gatlin said. “I live for this moment. I live for the crowd.”

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Phenom Jaylen Slade’s bid to make the Olympics at 17 ended in scary fashion. At about 40 meters of his heat, he tried to pull up, stumbled and fell violently. His head hit the track and his sunglasses shattered. Slade stood up and trotted off the track. He told NBC he took a false step and was fine.

Felix eases into 400 final

Allyson Felix advanced to the finals of the 400 meters with another effortless run, finishing second to Kendall Ellis in her heat at 51.01 seconds as she throttled down in the final 70 meters to conserve energy for Sunday night’s final. If she finishes in the top three, Felix, at age 35, will ensure a spot on her fifth Olympic team — and her first as a mother after giving birth to daughter Camryn in late 2018.

Felix never left the sport, but she came back from a physically traumatic birth that threatened both her life and Camryn’s. Felix said she has savored these trials more than any before, stopping to take in the surroundings.

“Life is in a new place for me now,” Felix said. “I had to fight for this opportunity, so I don’t take anything for granted.”

Through two races, Felix could seemingly not be more on schedule to make it to Tokyo. She finished first in the first round and has run with minimal effort, hewing to her strategy.

“I feel like I’m in good shape for tomorrow,” Felix said. “I feel really prepared for this moment. I’m trying to take it all in and have some fun as well.”

What to know about the U.S. track and field Olympic trials

McNeal competes during appeal

Brianna McNeal, the reigning Olympic 100-meter hurdles champion, took the track under unusual circumstances Saturday. In April, the Athletics Integrity Unit handed her a five-year ban for tampering with the doping-control process. McNeal appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which granted her a stay while it considers the judgment.

And so McNeal is allowed to compete at the trials. If she loses her appeal, she will miss the next two Olympics. If she wins, she could defend her gold medal in Tokyo. In case McNeal is banned, USATF advanced four hurdlers from her heat, pushing Evonne Britton to the semifinals.

This spring, McNeal also dealt with personal tragedy. During its broadcast, NBC reported that McNeal’s younger brother died at 18 last month.

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Owing to the ban, McNeal had not raced all season. She won her heat in 12.50 seconds, the second-fastest time of the night, and advanced to Sunday night’s semifinals, which will precede the final.

“I am ecstatic,” McNeal said, her voice catching. “Honestly, I want to cry right now. You guys don’t understand how much I’ve been through this year. I’m just very emotional.”

Aside from saying she believed she would receive a fair hearing from CAS, McNeal shared little about her case. “I’m just trusting God and hoping things work out for my good, and that’s that,” she said.

A dream disrupted

Aleia Hobbs sat down on the Hayward Field track, leaned back against a wall and cried. She did not know what she had done wrong in the blocks, two races away from her first Olympic team. She only knew she had been disqualified, and her heart had been broken. She stayed there for 20 minutes. She rose, walked back underneath the stands and sat for 10 more minutes, until her coach approached her.

“You have to get moving,” he told her. “You might run.”

Hobbs’s sad, frantic saga at the U.S. track and field trials lasted about 90 minutes, and it ended with a confused and devastated sprinter staying home for the Tokyo Olympics. Race officials ultimately allowed Hobbs to race in the 100-meter final after reversing their decision that Hobbs had false-started, but only after a long wait and frazzled rush to the start line. She finished seventh in 11.20 seconds, four places and 0.17 seconds away from becoming an Olympian.

“It was so hard,” Hobbs said. “I had broken all the way down, completely. To try to get back up, it was hard. But I tried.”

Hobbs was a star coming out of LSU and a 2018 national champion in the 100. Despite failing to make the world championships in 2019, Hobbs had asserted herself as a medal threat this year, running the seventh-fastest time in the world. When she settled into her blocks for the semifinal, she felt optimistic.

“I was ready,” Hobbs said. “I was 100 percent ready to run.”

In the blocks, Hobbs flinched before the gun went off. Officials ruled it a false start. As Hobbs tearfully walked to the side of the track, replays showed she had moved, but not enough to trigger disqualification.

Hobbs grieved for half an hour before her coach prompted her to keep warm. Minutes before the final began, while Hobbs was sitting alone in the call room, a race official told her she could race. She hustled to Lane 9 and set up her blocks.

“We didn’t know until they stepped on the track,” Hobbs said.

Afterward, Hobbs fought tears and gracefully explained what happened. She felt grateful she had been given a chance in the final, but she still knew she had not been able to run her best race.

“Honestly, no,” Hobbs said. “It was all in a rush. I had to hurry and mentally get prepared. I was happy I got to race, but it is what it is.”

Allman stars in discus

American record holder Valarie Allman made her first Olympic team with a dominant performance in the discus, heaving it 229 feet 5 inches, more than 24 feet further than second-place Micaela Hazelwood. Rachel Dincoff joined them with a clutch showing, leaping from fourth place to third with a 197-6 throw on her fifth and final attempt.

More about the Tokyo Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.