The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Noah Lyles found peace — and his elite form — after a challenging Olympic year

Olympic medalist Noah Lyles returned to his former high school (Alexandria City High, previously known as T.C. Williams) this week for a meet-and-greet with the community. He answered questions with his mother, Keisha Caine Bishop. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the aftermath of the Olympics, amid a whirl of disappointment and relief, Noah Lyles spoke with his sports therapist. Lyles had expected to win a gold medal in the 200 meters in Tokyo but instead won bronze, his race a precursor to an emotional outpouring. As he unpacked how he felt a letdown, his therapist surprised him. “I don’t think you should have won that medal,” she told him.

Lyles was taken aback. “Wow,” he recalls asking her. “You playing me like that?” She explained her point. Had Lyles won a gold medal in Tokyo, she told him, he would have been bored by track and field. His aspirations and goals would have vanished. His effort at practice would dissipate. He probably would leave the sport altogether within two years.

Lyles paused to think and arrived at a simple conclusion: She was right.

“Not having a gold medal is going to make me extremely hungry,” Lyles said. “Not having the Olympics go how I planned it to go really made me strive, think in my head, ‘I’m going to mess some people up in these next years.’ I know I was dominating before this, but now I don’t want anybody to even think about getting close.”

After a turbulent and trying 18 months, Lyles, 24, is finding peace — and regaining the sprinting form he did not summon in Tokyo — as he moves on from his first Olympic experience. On a welcome break from training, Lyles recently traveled to a handful of speaking engagements to support the Lyles Brothers Sports Foundation, his encased bronze medal in tow. He served as the official starter at a NASCAR race. He planned to attend Monday night’s Met Gala.

“I feel like I’m on tour,” Lyles said.

This past Tuesday, Lyles paced on a stage at Alexandria City High. It was the first time he had been back to his alma mater since its name had been changed from T.C. Williams. He shared his story from the past 18 months, answered questions from the audience, showed off his medal and posed for selfies. He and his mother, Keisha Caine Bishop, focused the speech and Q&A on mental health, the issue Lyles tearfully promoted in Tokyo after winning bronze.

From August: Noah Lyles won bronze in the 200 meters. Then he let everything out.

Speaking in an auditorium with a crowd of roughly 100 people, Lyles again shared the experience of his Olympic run-up: the stress he felt at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the Olympics; the mental health issues he struggled with after the killing of George Floyd; going on antidepressants; feeling scared at the realization those antidepressants affected his performance; going off antidepressants; winning the U.S. trials when, “At one point, I thought to myself, ‘I might not make this team,’ ” he revealed; an Olympic performance in which he failed to win a 200-meter race for the second time in his professional career; and an emotional, public outpouring thereafter.

The immediate response Lyles received after Tokyo heartened him. He heard from “countless” people, he said, who told him that sharing his mental health struggles helped them seek help. Lyles spoke to Alexandria City students Tuesday, and afterward one of them informed Lyles that it gave him a guide to approach his own recent anxiety.

“Having me say something was a big change in how they saw things,” Lyles said. “That’s really what it’s all been about.”

When he returned from Tokyo, Lyles did not want to run at the Prefontaine Classic, a high-profile Diamond League meet in Eugene, Ore., on Aug. 21 as scheduled. He had been running all year, waiting nearly two years for one moment, and now he wanted a clean break from track. His mother, who also serves as his manager, encouraged him to race. Lyles told her he would talk with his sports therapist about it.

“Why don’t you want to run?” she asked him.

“I’m just tired of running,” Lyles recalled saying. “I feel Iike I’ve been running forever. I’m emotionally drained. My body is in great shape. I feel like I just faced a lion and lost. I feel like I’m wounded emotionally. I’m scarred. I’m hurt. I don’t feel like I’m ready to back into that arena and fight again.”

“I think you’re scared,” she replied.

“I said: ‘Me? Noah? Scared? Nah. Nah. Nah,’ ” Lyles said. “ ‘That can’t be right.’ ”

Lyles listened to his therapist explain: Because he so rarely lost races, he didn’t know how to react to his result in Tokyo. That uncertainty had made him shut down.

“In that moment, I had to admit to myself I was scared,” Lyles said. “That’s very vulnerable. That doesn’t mean you can’t fight back.”

Lyles started to consider the upside. He was already in great shape. Unlike the Olympics, where he made an unforced error in a semifinal, he would run in an advantageous lane. There were no preliminary rounds. His entire family — including his brother, Josephus, who would run in the same 200-meter race — could travel with him. There would be fans. The pressure he felt to perform as one of the heavily promoted faces of the Olympics would be gone. He decided he would race.

When he walked out of the tunnel, he knew he had made the right decision. He saw Hayward Field slammed with fans, ringing the bleachers all the way up to the highest row — not the smattering there months earlier during the trials.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed the crowd until I saw the stadium and the whole thing was packed full of people,” Lyles said. “I literally turned around to Josephus and said: ‘Look at this! This is a crowd! This is something I can get entertained by!’ I could feel all these emotions I hadn’t felt for two years instantly come back. I was like: ‘Oh, yeah. I’m a showman. This crowd gets me there.’ I really was influenced by not having a crowd in Tokyo. That really affected me. And when I was back in Pre, I was just like, ‘Something is going to happen today.’ ”

Something happened. Lyles screamed around the turn ahead and only separated from there, breaking the tape in 19.52 seconds. It was the fastest time in the world this year, only two-hundredths of a second behind his personal best and relative light-years better than his 19.74 in Tokyo. Only four men, Lyles included, have run faster.

“When I walked into Tokyo, I knew I was in 19.5, 19.4 shape,” Lyles said. “The thing that probably hurt the most was I didn’t get to show it. That was really one of the things that hurt me the most. Not only did I get bronze. I didn’t even get the PR. I didn’t even get close to a PR. Somebody beat me with a time that wasn’t even close to my PR. I guess every dog does have their day, and it wasn’t mine.”

At the Prefontaine Classic, Lyles derived more joy when he looked at the time next to the other Lyles in the race. Josephus finished third in a personal-best 20.03 seconds.

In Tokyo, Lyles had broken down as he said he wished his brother had been there instead of him. As Lyles became a track superstar, his younger brother battled injuries and inconsistency. The race in Oregon represented a breakthrough: For the first time in four years, Lyles said, Josephus attained one of the time bonuses in his contract. Near the finish line, the brothers pointed at each other and hugged.

“A joyous occasion,” Lyles said.

For Lyles, the race reminded the track world that when he is at his best, nobody in the world is faster than him. It also reminded Lyles that he runs best when he is performing rather than trying to please. In Oregon, Lyles felt he had returned to the peak he reached before the pandemic changed so much.

“I now feel that I’m running for myself and not running for others,” Lyles said. “I finally was confident in what I was doing again. I didn’t feel like I had the weight of the world on me anymore.”

As Lyles found himself, he shared his struggles to help others. Track and field rarely slows down. Josephus is in Switzerland, gearing up for a full European Diamond League slate. The world championships will take place in less than a year. For now, after the hardest year of his life, Lyles is in the place he wants to be.