Propped up on the beds of a Baltimore hotel room, Noah and Josephus Lyles sat transfixed as the Opening Ceremonies of the London Olympics unfolded before them on the television.
In that moment, on a hot July day in 2012, the two budding sprinters hatched a plan that has driven them for the past four years: Together, they would run in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Today, Noah, 18, and Josephus, 17, are two of the most dominant sprinters in the world in their age groups, running for T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, and representing their country in Rio de Janeiro has become a distinct possibility.
Their performances on the high school tracks of Northern Virginia and beyond have led to state championships and national titles. This weekend, they take aim at the Virginia 6A state championships in Hampton, where they are expected to help fuel T.C. Williams’s push for a second straight team title. They have represented the United States in international competitions in Cuba, Ukraine, China, Canada and Colombia and graced the cover of their sport’s biggest magazine. But walk into the living room of the Alexandria apartment where they live with their mother and sister, and there’s scarcely a sign that the brothers have accomplished anything at all.
Some of their awards end up in the trash. Others go to T.C. Williams teammates. Most are piling up in a cardboard box in the trunk of their coach’s car. One award — a gold watch given to the members of the United States’ fastest relay team at the Penn Relays — was given to a race volunteer. All he had to do was compliment Noah on the fresh bling last April, and the then-junior handed it to him on the spot.
“For us, it’s more about the record or the time,” Josephus said. “We don’t need a medal to know we did well. That’s not what pushes us.”
What pushes the seniors is an insatiable desire to be the best sprinters in the world and the outrageous idea that they actually can achieve it.
The brothers are infectious when they talk about running, and they love it when people doubt them. But their journey to sprinting success has been littered with challenges, particularly for Noah.
Since birth, he has suffered through bouts of asthma that come in the form of incessant coughing and inexorable stomach pain. It cost him and his mother, Keisha Caine, countless nights’ sleep, and when he was 6, he had an attack so severe it kept him away from school for more than a month. Caine, who home-schooled her three children until they moved from Gainesville, Fla., to Charlotte in 2005, decided to have Noah repeat first grade. The brothers, separated by 1 year, 4 days and 1 minute, have been mistaken for twins ever since.
But for those who know Noah and Josephus beyond a name in the paper or blur on the track, the brothers couldn’t be more different.
At 6 feet 2, Josephus has long outgrown his older brother. His arms and legs are long enough to fit an NBA forward, which makes sense because doctors figure he hasn’t finished growing.
When he was in the eighth grade, he met T.C. Williams’s sprint coach, Rashawn Jackson, for the first time. Jackson sized him up on the spot.
“You’ve got big feet,” Jackson told him. “You’re going to be fast.”
Using every inch to his advantage, Josephus thrives in the longer sprints, particularly the 400-meter dash. It’s the same event his father, Kevin Lyles, ran so well at Seton Hall and later in the 1996 Olympic trials. Josephus is the two-time defending champion at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals.
“If you know what you’re looking for, you can see their personalities in the way they run,” said Caine, a 1991 All-Met runner at Wilson who went on to win a Big East indoor title at Seton Hall, where she met the boys’ father. “Noah’s creative, but he’s cautious. Josephus, he just says, ‘I’m going to give it all I got, and catch me if you can.’ ”
Noah is 5-9 and the more ballistic of the two, which lends itself perfectly to the shorter sprints he so routinely dominates.
In the blocks, he appears no different from the competitors beside him. Then the gun fires, and he starts quicker than they do and gets stronger with every stride.
At the 2015 USATF Junior Outdoor Championships, Noah won the 200 national title in 20.18 seconds — the third-fastest prep time in U.S. history — one day after he won the 100 title. The American junior record of 20.13 has stood since 1985 and was his to break, but the pain from running a hole in his lucky red socks became too great, and he pulled up at the end. This spring, he has Usain Bolt’s 19.93 world junior record in his sights.
Such dominance leads to the occasional overlap. At the Virginia Tech Premier High School Invitational in late January, the boys competed in the 300. Noah edged out a competitive field and won the event in 33.18 seconds, the third-fastest time in U.S. preps history. Josephus crossed 0.08 seconds later and is now sixth on the all-time list.
“They know what they want to do, and they know it takes hard work to get there,” said renowned track coach Lisa Morgan, who coached the boys’ parents as an assistant at Seton Hall. “Not only are they the best athletes in America, but they are among the best young athletes in the world.”
Off the track, Noah always has been the artistic one. His sketchbook serves as a timeline from wandering doodles to life-like sketches and vivid cartoons. He writes poetry — including one about why he gives away all his medals — and paints custom boots.
“I do it to express myself through art and symbolism,” he says. “As much as I try, I can’t always express myself on the track.”
When MileSplit.com released a breakdown of every record time in every event broken down by class on its website last year, Josephus, who was doing third-grade level math when he was 6, spent the better part of two hours sitting at the kitchen table obsessing over who was running what and how fast.
Despite the obvious differences, being able to separate the two boys has proved difficult for strangers and costly for recruiters.
“They’re two very distinct, different individuals,” University of Florida track and field Coach Mike Holloway said. “I recruited Noah, and I recruited Josephus. I didn’t recruit the brothers together.”
Holloway was the minority in that respect. More often than not, letters would be addressed to Noah and Josephus together. That’s part of the reason the boys committed in November to run at Florida , a decision they will honor if they don’t decide to join the professional ranks.
Together, Noah, Josephus and Caine — their “momager” — created a matrix of 30 questions to ask each college coach who contacted them. Everything from “what was your most common injury” to “what did you do last year that you’d change this year” was on their checklist. Each question had a right answer, and those resulted in one point in that school’s favor. There were also automatic disqualifiers, such as mispronouncing Josephus (Jo-SEE-fis).
Caine has taken a similarly exhaustive approach in the boys’ Olympic pursuit. Every three months, the “Road to Rio” team meets to make sure everything is on track for their trip to the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., in early July. The group includes Jackson, T.C Williams Coach Michael Hughes, their chiropractor and their trainer.
But Noah and Josephus know that realizing the dream they envisioned four years ago falls squarely on their shoulders. Noah, whose personal record in the 200 was the 20.18-sockburner, needs to be in the high 19s or low 20s to qualify. Josephus thinks he will qualify for one of the six spots on the Olympic team with a sub-45 in the 400. His personal best is 45.46 seconds.
“They have the heart, determination, desire and perseverance to do it,” Morgan said. “And if they don’t make 2016, they are definitely future Olympians. They will make one of these upcoming Olympic teams.”
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