TOKYO — Noah Lyles knelt on track at the end of National Stadium and thanked God. He clasped his hands and pressed them to his forehead, an American flag wrapped around his back like a blanket. Two years ago, Lyles set a goal to win three gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But he made that declaration when he still thought they would happen in 2020, before the world and his life changed. On Wednesday night, in 2021, he won a bronze medal. He called the result “boring,” and then before a global audience of people who had watched him run, he bared his soul so that he might help some of them.
Lyles, a 24-year-old from Alexandria, Va., sprinted 200 meters in 19.74 seconds. Canadian Andre de Grasse won gold in 19.62 seconds, and perpetually overlooked American Kenny Bednarek took silver in 19.68.
Lyles and Bednarek, young and famous and at the apex of their sport, walked a victory lap draped in flags. They talked about how hard the last year had been.
Lyles has struggled with mental health most of his life, he said, and like many athletes here, the coronavirus pandemic year challenged him like none before. After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, he grappled with how the country he represents treats Black men like him. In the summer of 2020, Lyles revealed he had started taking antidepressants. They affected his training, and he cycled off them before the Olympics.
Shortly before Lyles boarded his plane for Tokyo, he broke down crying and had a long talk with his girlfriend.
“We were talking about a lot of things,” Lyles said late Wednesday, standing in a place called the mixed zone, behind a metal barrier and facing about 20 reporters. “We were talking about me and my brother. It’s been really hard for me watching him train as hard as he has.”
Lyles paused and rubbed tears from his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Lyles and his brother, Josephus, became inseparable at a young age. Josephus is a year younger, but Noah was held back a year in elementary school because of extended illness. Most people thought they were twins. It was Josephus’s idea for them to turn pro together out of high school. They moved to Clermont, Fla., where they room and train together.
Noah Lyles fast-tracked to superstardom. Josephus battled injuries. Josephus is still an elite sprinter, fast enough to make the 200-meter semifinals at the U.S. trials. But the difference in their speed separates them as athletes.
In the mixed zone, Lyles inhaled and breathed deep.
“I thank God every day I’m able to come out here, but at the same time, this wasn’t even my dream,” Lyles said. “In 2012, my brother had the dream that he was going to come to the Olympics, and I’d really just tag along for the ride. Sometimes I think to myself, you know, this should be him.”
Lyles stopped moments later and apologized. He sobbed and heaved. He seemed unable to continue. A USA Track & Field representative patted him on the shoulder. Reporters thanked him.
“I want to finish this,” Lyles said.
Lyles spoke for another seven minutes and spent all of them discussing mental health. He was diagnosed in his youth as dyslexic, and the struggles he faced in school led to his first bouts of depression. When he started running track, he said, “I felt that everything had been lifted.”
The pandemic resurfaced those struggles. Lyles felt compelled to speak out after Floyd’s death in police custody. He marched with Josephus in Orlando. He wore a black glove and raised his fist in the starting blocks. At times, his advocacy brought further pressure. He felt as if he were being asked to speak on behalf of all Black people or all Black athletes.
Lyles started taking antidepressants in the summer of 2020, which he revealed on Twitter. The medication led to slight weight gain and impacted his training by neutralizing his emotions.
Lyles cycled off antidepressants to ready for the Olympics. As he prepared for trials, his training took another blow when his massage therapist fell ill. Without her, he said, he felt at risk of injury and could not recover from workouts as well.
“I always said the day I wasn’t having fun with this sport, I’m going to leave it,” Lyles said. “And for a little bit, I wasn’t having fun this year. I did want to leave. I had to make a decision. I was like, I got to get better. I can’t let this control me.”
Lyles remains thankful for all the sport has given him. He loves fashion, art and music, and his success has enabled him to express his other talents. Before the Games, he appeared in GQ. “Shoot,” Lyles said. “I’m going to the Met Gala."
“I am not defined by being an Olympic bronze medalist or a gold medal world champion or the high-schooler that went pro,” Lyles said. “It’s not who I am. I’m Noah Lyles. I’m not Usain Bolt’s successor. I’m not Andre De Grasse’s successor. I’m me. And that’s who I’ll always be.”
Lyles said he believes fully in the efficacy of antidepressants. He has heard from people on social media that his revelation helped them seek help.
“And I knew there was a lot of people out there like me who were too scared to say something or start that journey,” Lyles said. “I wanted them to know, if you see me in a big light, I want you to know that it’s okay to not feel good, and you can go out and talk with somebody professionally or even get on medication. This is a serious issue. You don’t want to wake up one day and think, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’ ”
As 11 p.m. approached Wednesday, Lyles remained in the mixed zone. He found the session therapeutic. Mostly, he wanted media present to spread his message.
“I want other people to know there’s a better way,” Lyles said. “… Even affecting one person is the goal.”
Though Lyles used the Olympics as a platform, he had come to Tokyo to win. Had the Olympics not been postponed, he might have. In 2019, Lyles won the 200 meters world championship in 19.83 seconds. That same year, he ran a 19.50, the eighth-fastest time ever.
“I don’t think about what-ifs,” Lyles said. “Why would I put myself in a position of thinking about a whole bunch of what-ifs? … Then all of a sudden, I’m creating panic attacks for myself. I’m digging myself into a hole that doesn’t even exist.”
Lyles started the Olympic final in Lane 3, a consequence of how he finished his semifinal heat, when he eased up at the line and fell into third place. He started well and made an excellent turn, he believed, and expected he would be ahead of De Grasse and Bednarek. But he couldn’t catch them in the homestretch.
Still, Lyles remains a star. Only three men have run halfway around a track faster, all eye-popping names: Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Yohan Blake. He already started plotting a way to change his training to return to his fastest times, perhaps with less practice on the 100 and more on the 200, like in previous years.
“Maybe it wasn’t my time,” Lyles said. “God said that you’re affecting a lot of people and you don’t have to win to affect those people. Maybe somebody else needs that light. Maybe De Grasse needs that light. It’s not all about me. It would be selfish to think it’s about me. Sometimes it’s about other people.”
More about the Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.