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Noah Lyles races into history with an American record in the 200 meters

Lyles finished in 19.31 seconds, besting Michael Johnson’s U.S. mark of 19.32

Noah Lyles was unbeatable Thursday night in Eugene, Ore. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

EUGENE, Ore. — Around the turn they came, and suddenly Noah Lyles’s rival changed from the precocious sprinter three lanes over to history. Any question about his superiority in the 200 meters melted in the vast distance between the pack and Lyles, a one-man island on the brick-red track. Lyles stopped racing the fastest runners in the world. He started chasing the fastest of all time.

The track and field universe wondered whether Lyles could withstand Erriyon Knighton. It left Thursday night in awe, armed with the knowledge he had chased down Michael Johnson. At the track and field world championships, as the sunset reflected off the Coburg Hills in the distance beyond Hayward Field, Lyles ran halfway around an oval faster than any American ever, faster than any man except Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.

On a night when track intellectuals felt he needed to prove he could beat an 18-year-old prodigy, Lyles toppled a 26-year-old record. When the former T.C. Williams (now Alexandria City) High star crossed the finish line, the clock displayed 19.32 seconds — the time Johnson etched into the record book at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Lyles marched toward the clock and repeated, “Really? Really?” He bowed to the crowd and dropped to his knees, hands clasped in prayer. After the standard verification process, Lyles looked again at the clock.

“And then that number changed from a 2 to a 1, and my whole mood changed,” Lyles said.

Remember the time: 19.31 seconds. It is the new mark Americans will chase in the 200. Lyles slapped the track three times and tore off the top of his singlet. After a turbulent Olympic year that culminated with a bronze medal, Lyles had reclaimed his place not only atop his event but the entire sport.

“I didn’t know who got second,” Lyles said. “That’s how big the gap was.”

Last year in Tokyo, alone in a dorm room, Lyles cued up footage of the forever race Johnson ran wearing gold spikes in Atlanta. Johnson had set the record out of Lane 3, which inspired Lyles after he stumbled in the semifinal and drew the same undesirable lane.

Lyles finished third in Japan. Afterward, in front of a pack of reporters, he cried as he said he wished his brother, Josephus, had made the Olympics instead of him. Lyles struggled with mental health in 2021, openly discussing the effects of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. He took antidepressants, then came off them because he said they affected his training. He lacked verve in the empty stadium.

Time and therapy changed Lyles’s outlook. Crowds returned to track arenas, and Lyles, a natural performer, fed off the energy. He tightened his inner circle. Josephus, who turned professional with his brother out of high school, overcame an endless string of nagging injuries and made the U.S. team in the relay pool. Lyles felt like himself again.

“Every time I got on the track this year, I knew I wasn’t that same person anymore,” he said. “It was like I found my juice, my groove. I was enjoying track again. I was happy every day to be running.”

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Lyles had focused this year on his start and his turn, and earlier at the world championships he had showcased both. He won his semifinal heat in 19.62 seconds, a jaw-dropping preliminary time. Lyles’s coaches believed if he executed his turn the same way, with the intensity of a final, he could break the American record.

Knighton remained a threat. Last summer, he became the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since Jim Ryun in 1964. He claimed fourth in the 200 at 17 years old, and at that remarkable achievement expressed only disappointment. For an encore this year, Knighton had added two more milestones. In April, during a small meet at LSU, Knighton sprinted half a lap in 19.49 seconds, which made him the fourth-fastest man ever and shattered Bolt’s junior record. A few weeks later, he graduated from Tampa’s Hillsborough High.

Knighton’s race at LSU nudged him one spot ahead of Lyles on the all-time list, but Lyles had not ceded his place as the American standard. Knighton had still not defeated Lyles head-to-head in a final. He came closest at last month’s U.S. championships, where Lyles chased down Knighton in the final straightaway and beat him by 0.02 seconds, pointing across Knighton’s face at the clock as he broke the tape.

Their showdown Thursday became the main attraction in Eugene. No less an eminence than John Carlos attended. Carlos watched in person alongside Tommie Smith, who raised a gloved fist with Carlos in protest on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after winning 200-meter gold and bronze. Carlos weighed in beforehand on another pair of American medalists.

“I like the young fella, Mr. Lyles, because I looked at his career, I looked at his heart, and he’s a fighter,” Carlos said. “I look at the young fella, Erriyon, he reminds me of myself because he is a tall individual but he runs a blazing turn. ... I think Mr. Lyles is going to have to do his greatest race ever in or beat this young kid.”

Lyles knew Carlos and Smith well. At the Olympic trials last year, Lyles raised a gloved fist in the starting blocks of the 100 meters final. He met and conversed with both men as marches filled American streets two summers ago.

“They themselves are the people who inspired me to be like, ‘You know what, I’m going to risk it all,’ ” Lyles said. “I don’t care what any company says. I’m going to go out there and I will speak my truth on how I feel about Black Lives Matter. Because I’m not gonna lie. I was scared. Black man being at the top of sports, they love when you aren’t going against the status quo.”

Minutes before Lyles and Knighton settled into their blocks, Shericka Jackson of Jamaica showed the conditions could yield an epic time. She won the women’s 200 in 21.45 seconds, the closest any woman has come to Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 21.34, a world record that no longer seems quite so unbreakable. Jackson passed fellow Jamaican and reigning Olympic gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah on the all-time list and held off countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the ageless legend who added a silver to the 100-meter gold she won earlier in the meet.

As the public address introduced him in the blocks in Lane 6, Lyles lifted his arms over his head and brought them to his chest, stuck out his tongue and shook his short, gold-dyed braids. At the gun, Lyles rocketed out of the blocks — he would later call it the best start of his career. He passed both sprinters who started ahead of him before the curve. When he came off the turn, Lyles could not feel Knighton.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m racing myself,’ ” Lyles said.

Afterward, Lyles ran to the crowd and hugged Josephus and his mother, Keisha Caine Bishop, the two people he missed in Tokyo most of all. “You did it,” Caine Bishop told him. “You did it.”

Lyles had won by so much that he didn’t realize until he climbed the podium that Bednarek, the silver medalist in Tokyo, had finished second in 19.77 seconds, clipping Knighton by .03 seconds. Bednarek, frequently overlooked, had validated his Tokyo finish even after he broke his right big toe dropping a cabinet on it.

“I’m not a handyman, apparently,” Bednarek said. “Then I realized I put the cabinet in wrong, which made it worse.”

Knighton still became the youngest sprinting medalist ever at world championships. His other prize? Summer vacation before he starts taking college classes.

“School wasn’t really that hard,” Knighton said. “It was just getting up.”

As he signed autographs in the stands, Johnson, here covering the event for the BBC, walked down and congratulated him. Lyles told him about those nights in Tokyo, watching the tape of Johnson’s record 200 meters.

Those times seemed far away. Through personal turmoil last year, Lyles advocated for mental health and discussed his own struggles so that others might seek necessary help. This year, Lyles has shown that joy might be waiting on the other side of internal torment. This week, Lyles met Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who is here in Oregon on behalf of President Biden.

“I wondered why he wanted to talk to me,” Lyles said late Thursday night. “Something that came up was I was a male. And I was a Black male that talked about mental health. ... And that was kind of a shock to me. We talked about the ego of the male, and how we feel that we have to carry the weight of the whole world on our shoulders. And it doesn’t have to be that way. I feel like definitely talking about mental health last year, and coming out the other side this year shows that.”

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Now that he has returned to himself, now that he owns the American record, it is tempting to wonder what comes next for Lyles, who turned 25 on Tuesday. He was asked whom he considered his biggest rival, between Knighton and Bednarek. “Me,” Lyles said.

Only two men and 0.12 seconds separate Lyles from the world record. He has separated from his peers, even the 18-year-old who challenged him this year. Bolt’s 19.19 has long stood as a fanciful target. It may have inched into the realm of possibility Thursday night. With so much behind him and so little in front of him, Lyles was asked: Is 19.19 in his sights?

“Nineteen-ten,” Lyles said.

Note: U.S. decathlon champion Garrett Scantling, who finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, accepted a provisional suspension for a possible anti-doping violation and will not compete at the world championships, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced. Scantling had been left off the decathlon start list for an unexplained reason.

He is not accused of testing positive for a banned substance. Scantling committed possible whereabouts violations and possible tampering during an investigation into those violations, the USADA said.