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Noah Lyles runs down Erriyon Knighton, adds new layer to their rivalry

Noah Lyles had just enough time to point out his winning time in the 200 meters Sunday at the U.S. track outdoor championships. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
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Before Sunday afternoon, Noah Lyles had not settled into the blocks alongside a sprinter with a faster 200-meter personal best than him since early in his days at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria. To his immediate left on the starting line of the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships stood Erriyon Knighton, the 18-year-old who laid waste to Usain Bolt’s junior records and, earlier this year, surpassed Lyles as the fourth-fastest man ever over 200 meters.

When he roared around the corner, Lyles could see Knighton ahead of him. The Hayward Field crowd in Eugene, Ore., may have sensed a permanent shift in the event but not Lyles. He believed — he knew — he would not let Knighton take his status as the American 200-meter king, at least not Sunday. Lyles thought to himself, “I’m going to catch him.”

The U.S. championships provided an eventful preview of next month’s world championships, also in Eugene — the first contested on American soil. Sydney McLaughlin pushed further into the 400 hurdles frontier. Athing Mu survived a rare challenge and exhibited her standard 800-meter brilliance. Fred Kerley cemented his world-class status in the short sprints. Devon Allen, the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, squeaked into the world championships. Sha’Carri Richardson stunned in her inability to qualify for the world championships in the 100 or 200.

The most electrifying moment may have been Lyles’s refusal to let Knighton seize his crown. Knighton appeared poised to make the race a passing of the torch. With his wicked finishing speed, his bravado and his words, Lyles made it the birth of a rivalry.

Lyles chased down, caught and passed Knighton to win his third consecutive U.S. championship in the 200, beating Knighton’s 19.69 seconds. At the finish line, Lyles pointed across Knighton’s face at the clock that displayed his time of 19.67, grinning as he broke the tape. He didn’t just maintain his title. He spiked the football.

Lyles, 24, has lost just two 200 finals as a professional, a Diamond League race to Michael Norman and the Tokyo Olympics final, where he took bronze. Many believed Knighton would make it three Sunday. He has destroyed Bolt’s under-20 record in the 200. During a small meet at LSU this spring, Knighton clocked a stunning 19.49 seconds, a time only three men have beaten — and 0.01 seconds better than Lyles’s best.

How Noah Lyles found peace after emotional Olympics

Lyles and Knighton race for Adidas, and Lyles has been quick to compliment and support his young rival. But Lyles’s charismatic nature can hide his competitiveness. He saw Knighton coming, and he didn’t blink.

“When it’s time to line up, I’m going to have it,” Lyles said two weeks ago at a meet in New York. “I know it, automatically. I’m always going to be ready.”

In the first 100 meters, Lyles lagged behind half the field — including his brother, Josephus, who achieved the best result of his career with a fifth-place finish in 19.93. But he could tell he had conserved more than his competitors. He did not panic. Even when he took one too-long stride around the turn, he recovered with the next step.

“It came to that point where I knew I was going to overtake him,” Lyles said. “I knew the race was over.”

Lyles surged past the pack, pulled even with Knighton inside the final 30 meters and passed him in the last 10 — so secure in his victory that he glanced at Knighton and pointed at the clock as he crossed the line.

“I’m pointing at all those people who kept doubting me all year and all last year,” Lyles said later. “Everybody who keeps saying, ‘He’s out of the picture.’ Even NBC don’t want to talk about me no more. That’s cool, though. I’ll let you know. I’ll put you back in check, every time.”

Once he crossed, Lyles found a camera and screamed “Always fast!” as he held up his watch. Lyles lined up on the track next to Knighton and third-place finisher Kerley, who qualified in the 200 two days after he ran the fastest 100 in the world this year, for an interview with NBC.

“I do what it takes to win,” Lyles said. “Erriyon got the best of me on the turn. I ain’t worried about that. I saw he had reached his top speed, and I said, ‘Mine’s faster.’ I said: ‘I’m going to catch him. It’s just going to take the whole rest of the 100.’ That’s what I did.”

The interviewer turned to Knighton and asked about his expectations for the world championships.

“Just come back and win,” he said. “Job’s not finished. It’s never finished.”

Knighton stomped away, and Lyles shouted in his direction, “Never finished!”

“He just came and got me,” Knighton said later. “He got the better of me that race. That’s it.”

McLaughlin, 22, continued to rearrange what’s possible while clearing 10 hurdles on one lap around the track. On Saturday evening, she reset her world record for the second time since she seized it at the U.S. trials last summer. On that night, with record holder Dalilah Muhammad running in the lane next to hers, McLaughlin lowered it to 51.90 seconds. At the Olympics, McLaughlin shattered her record in 51.46.

In Saturday’s final, she nudged it to 51.41. What stood out was not her speed, at least no more than usual, but the jarring lack of strain McLaughlin required. Ahead of her competitors by an acre with Muhammad taking her bye to the world championships, McLaughlin cruised to the finish line, breaking her record almost by accident.

“I knew it was going to be fast,” she said. “I looked at the time, and I was just really happy with it, being able to just slowly progress towards lower and lower times. There’s still things I can work on. I think there’s a little bit more in the tank there. Hopefully when it comes time, we can just empty it completely.”

The only reason McLaughlin cannot be considered the hands-down most dominant woman in the United States is Mu, a fellow Tokyo double gold medalist. She repeated as the U.S. champion in the 800 meters in atypical fashion: It appeared she had to try.

Mu might be the best runner in the world, at any distance. She usually destroys the field. Down the homestretch Sunday, Ajee Wilson pushed her — and even passed her with about 30 meters left. Mu receives few challenges, but she has proved she can withstand them. She retook the lead and edged Wilson, 1:57.16 to 1:57.23.

“I’m glad that I fought,” Mu said. “I’m glad I still had it my legs to come back and run.”

A close call for Mu counts as a surprise, but it paled to the shock of the championships. Three days after she failed to escape the 100 preliminary round, Richardson finished in 22.47 seconds in a 200 semifinal heat and failed to reach the final. A year after she missed the Olympics after a positive marijuana test at the U.S. trials, Richardson will not race in the world championships for the confounding reason that she just wasn’t fast enough.

Two weeks ago, Richardson won the NYC Grand Prix 200 meters in 22 seconds flat and ran the 100 in 10.85, both performances that would have advanced her to worlds.

It’s hard to know what went wrong. Richardson addressed reporters in Eugene only to chastise them and did not take questions or explain her performance.

“When you guys do interviews, y’all should respect athletes more,” she said. “… Athletes deserve way more respect than when y’all just come and throw cameras into their faces. Understand how an athlete operates and then ask your questions.”

Her absence cleared the way for Kentucky’s Abby Steiner to emerge as a potential superstar. Steiner won the 200 in 21.77 seconds, 0.03 faster than the NCAA record she set this month to win the collegiate title. “Coming off the college season, a lot of people put limits on you, want to say you’re burnt out,” Steiner said.

Gabby Thomas, the reigning 200-meter U.S. champion and Olympic bronze medalist, finished eighth and tearfully revealed to reporters that she had suffered a Grade 2 hamstring tear two weeks ago. “I had been working so hard to be here, and it was all just taken in one second,” Thomas said. “I did the best I could.”

The final day built toward the 110 hurdles, where Allen expected to challenge the world record. Two weeks ago in New York, Allen ran it in 12.84 seconds, the third-fastest time ever and 0.04 behind the record. Sweetening the deal for television execs, Allen is a two-time Olympian and a former Oregon wide receiver who signed with the Eagles after wowing them at the Ducks’ pro day.

Daniel Roberts didn’t care about any of that. He beat Allen and NCAA champion Trey Cunningham in 13.03 seconds. Allen finished third by a whisker in 13.09, which sent him to the world championships.

No one made the team in more dramatic fashion than Texas A&M’s Brandon Miller in the 800 meters. Behind champion Bryce Hoppel, Miller dived at the line to edge two-time Olympian Clayton Murphy for the third and final spot on the world championship team. “I just wanted to do it for everybody that believed in me,” Miller said in an NBC interview. “I just wanted it so much.”

Miller will advance to the world championships next month, where Lyles and Knighton will be headliners. Knighton’s future will be tantalizing to a global audience. But he still hasn’t beaten Lyles in a final, and Lyles plans to keep it that way. He was asked Sunday what he expects in July.

“Win,” he said, smiling. “What else?”

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