Internally, though, Lyles had wondered how the race would unfold. He had grappled with the pressure and expectation of competing at a big event as a reigning world champion. His body felt sore from a punishing training schedule. He described the race as “raw,” an attempt to run purely amid uncertainty that was once foreign for a sprinting phenom.
“Sometimes you got to go in, and you’re going to have a little doubt,” Lyles said during a virtual news conference in late May. “The thing you got to do is, you got to show up for the race and be like, ‘I might be a little scared or fearful or doubtful, but being able to show up and run to the best of your abilities, that’s what really being a champion is about.’ ”
Even with the presence of Allyson Felix, the emergence of Trayvon Bromell and Sha’Carri Richardson in the 100, and the record-breaking rivalry between Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin, Lyles may be the face of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, which start Friday in Eugene, Ore., and run until June 27. Lyles aims to win three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, in the 100, 200 and 4x100 relay. Doing so would allow him to take the title vacated by Usain Bolt as track and field’s most transcendent star — even if he is not yet guaranteed a spot in those events.
A showman as much as a speedster, Lyles has threaded his exuberance with vulnerability. He will carry the same grand goals into the trials and Tokyo as he would have in 2020, but now he has a new purpose.
Since the death of George Floyd, Lyles has devoted himself to police reform and racial justice, sharing his perspective and pain. He attended a protest march in Orlando. He stated on social media that he had started taking antidepressant medication. He raised a fist wrapped in a fingerless black glove in the starting blocks before an August meet in Monaco. He has worn the glove for every race he has run since.
In late May, Lyles was asked how he had changed as an athlete and a person in the past year.
“Really, I feel like those questions coincide with each other,” Lyles said. “As a person, I had to go through a lot of mental struggles and to be honest internal struggles, with the change of the climate with covid happening and with the Black Lives Matter movement happening and seeing multiple incidences with a lot of people just getting shot by cops for unknown reasons at times and then huge stories coming out. It weighs heavy on the psyche.
“Trying to become stronger in the mind and being able to be right with my social thoughts and ideas and knowing that I have a way to make a change. And that kind of changed my view on why I’m running and why I want to be better or even just going out here and saying, ‘This meet is for this,’ or, ‘I’m using this meet to build up.’ Where a few years ago, I was probably already on and popping. But now I’m taking it slow. Because I have a specific mission and a specific date that I want to be at my peak. I don’t want it to just happen randomly. I want it to be as precise and as hard-hitting as possible.”
Many athletes speak of compartmentalizing their desires, separating athletic performance from life away from the arena. Lyles takes the opposite approach.
“Whatever happens outside your life happens inside your life of sports,” Lyles said. “Whatever happens inside your life of sports happens outside. They affect each other both ways. Being able to handle outside during the sport at time of competition is how you make yourself a better athlete, but also a better person.”
To accomplish all he wants, Lyles must first make the U.S. team. He has dominated the world for three years in the 200 — which will be the final event contested in Eugene — and is the fourth-fastest man in the history of the event. Only an injury or a shocking result could threaten him, even with the ongoing challenge from Bednarek and the arrival of LSU’s Terrance Laird, who in March ran the fastest time in the world this year.
In the 100, Lyles will be a challenger rather than a champion. He did not run the 100 late in the 2019 season; he focused on the 200 in his successful bid to win his first world championship. After the tumult of 2020, he emerged this year running times that have not put him alongside the world’s elite.
“My real concern with him is, what is going to become of this double?” NBC analyst and four-time Olympic medalist Ato Boldon said in a phone interview. “Because the lead-in to this double has been far from perfect. Having said that, Noah is a superstar. And superstars have a way of rising to the occasion.”
It’s possible, if not likely, that Lyles will have to top his personal best of 9.86, which he set early in 2019, just to make the team. Bromell has established himself as the favorite, having run 9.77 in June. Marvin Bracy ran 9.85 at the same meet. Justin Gatlin, even at 39, is the reigning Olympic and world championship silver medalist. Isiah Young beat Lyles head-to-head twice in May. And then there is a swarm of professionals and collegians capable of popping a great time or two.
Lyles will have to finish in the top three, and his times this year have not placed him in that echelon. At the Adidas Boost Boston Games in late May, Lyles ran the 100 in 10.03 and 10.10 seconds. A week later, at a small meet at his training facility in Clermont, Fla., Lyles posted 10.05 and 10.14.
In seven 100-meter races this year, both preliminary heats and finals, Lyles has not broken 10 seconds. Eleven American men, not all of whom are vying to make the 100 meters for Tokyo, have run faster.
“I have complete faith that I’m going to be ready when the time comes,” Lyles said after his race in Boston.
When it counts
Lyles’s history provides reason to believe. Throughout his career, since even high school, Lyles has never disappointed at the biggest events, including at the Olympic trials. In 2016, the standout from T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., set the American high school record in the 200 by running 20.09 seconds, missing the Olympics as an 18-year-old by 0.09 seconds.
By mid-2019, he had started to become the face of American track but had yet to claim a major gold medal. He torched the field at the outdoor national championships, then won the world championship with a wicked kick months later.
Lyles has been more focused on creating endurance for the double than early-season performance. He described one practice routine in which he ran a 400 in about 52 seconds, followed by four 200s with one-minute rests in between, all at a 24-second pace.
“I never thought I would hate a workout before,” Lyles said. “I hate that workout.”
Even if he has not seen results yet, Lyles believes he is going to be better than he was in 2019. He is leaner and stronger now, he said, the same weight as before but with his body fat percentage at 3.5 instead of 4.1.
“I think we’re going to be ready by Olympic trials,” Lyles said in May, “but I think I’m going to be really ready by the time Olympics comes.”
For a runner of Lyles’s caliber, it may be wise to trust ability over recent times.
“Sometimes the public or your sponsors or fans can be panicked for no reason, because you have been running a little below where you should, because your coach is peaking you for the trials,” Boldon said. “It’s like you’re baking a cake and everybody wants to come ask you why it’s not ready yet. It’s like: ‘Well, this is not a cake for May. It’s not a cake for early June. It’s a cake for when the 100 meters final goes off.’ If they have timed it right, then Noah is going to come through the trials with flying colors. But I think that, given how far off the pace he is — I mean, he’s two-tenths of a second off his personal best — I don’t think that’s just something you just dismiss as nothing.”