DES MOINES — Saturday morning, before his first appearance at these USATF Outdoor Championships, Noah Lyles dyed the top half of his hair silver, an odd color choice for an elite sprinter. It made sense for someone who, like Lyles, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Japanese anime cartoon Dragon Ball Z.
“I’m glad you asked about [the hair],” Lyles said. “In Dragon Ball Z, Goku’s final stage, or form, is Ultra Instinct, and his hair turns silver/gray. I’m ready to go. I’m ready to make the team. I’m in my highest state.”
Lyles, a 22-year-old former All-Met from T.C. Williams High, is racing to claim his first major championship, to acquire hardware commensurate with blazing race times that have helped make him a star. When he came to the national championships in 2017, he pulled a hamstring in his first round of qualifying for the 200 meters and had to pull out. Saturday, he had an easy start in the first round, setting him up for Sunday night’s semifinals and finals.
Lyles jogged to the finish line through a head wind and still won his heat in 20.65 seconds, more than a second slower the 19.50 personal best he ripped off last month in Lausanne, Switzerland, the fourth-fastest time in the event in history.
Performances like those, combined with his penchant for showmanship, are why many in the track world have anointed Lyles a prime candidate to fill the sprinting vacuum vacated by Usain Bolt’s retirement. At a promotional event this week, Bolt shared his impression of Lyles with the New York Times.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him run, I’ve seen him compete,” Bolt told the paper. “Last season he was doing a lot of good things, this season he has started off good. But as I said, it all comes down to the championship. Is he confident to come into a race after running three races and show up? For me he has shown that he has talent, but when the championship comes, we will see what happens.”
After his race, a reporter showed Lyles Bolt’s words.
“Sounds about right to me,” Lyles said. “Sounds like my thoughts exactly. That’s why I decided to choose one event this year.”
Lyles sat out the 100 at these championships to better ensure a gold in the 200, his best event. He watched as Christian Coleman, one of Lyles’s rivals, won the 100, which he plans to compete in at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Earlier this year, after Lyles beat Coleman in a 100 and declared it the start of his “legacy” as a 100 and 200 runner, Coleman bristled on social media. Despite the personality conflict, Coleman wouldn’t have a problem running with Lyles on a relay team.
“Why would I?” Coleman said. “When we put on the USA uniform and the job is to get the stick around, it is what it is.”
For now, Lyles’s singular focus is on winning the national championships. But it is not exactly his final stage. He noted that he had only dyed the top of half of his hair silver and continued his lesson in Dragon Ball Z canon.
“So, when Goku first reaches the first part of his Ultra Instinct, he was only halfway completed,” Lyles said. “So by the time I get to Doha [for the world championships in September], it’ll be fully colored in.”
There is a minor complication: The spray-on hair coloring Lyles found in Iowa lasts 24 hours, so he’ll have to do it again Sunday. He’ll also wear the same socks from Saturday, an electric blue pair with “Mamba” written on them. “The world’s fastest snake,” Lyles said.
Nikki Hiltz finished third in the women’s 1,500 to claim the final spot at the world championships in Qatar. Her joy was laced with a sad reality. Hiltz is openly gay, which she said will require her to use extra security because of Qatar’s regressive views and laws. Homosexuality is illegal and can be punished with jail time in Qatar.
“Someone actually asked me that a month ago: ‘Are you nervous if you make it to Doha?’ ” Hiltz said. “I was, ‘Why?’ They’re like, ‘Well, people get stoned and put in jail for being who they are.’ I didn’t really realize that, but I have been kind of thinking about it. It’s so bizarre. We live in our liberal bubbles of the U.S., and we forget there’s so much hate out there.” . . .
Pole vaulter Sam Kendricks cleared 6.06 meters, setting an American record. The jump means that a vaulter who competes for America actually owns the national record. Armand Duplantis, a dual citizen who grew up in Louisiana with a Swedish mother, jumped 6.05 meters in 2018. Even though he competes under the Swedish flag, his dual citizenship meant he owned the American record.. . .
DeAnna Price broke her own American record in the hammer throw with a final heave of 78.24 meters, the leading mark in the world this year. Price finished eighth at the 2016 Olympics. . . .
On his 22nd birthday, Rai Benjamin further entrenched himself as a threat to win an Olympic gold medal in the men’s 400 meters hurdles. He destroyed the field, crossing in 47.23 seconds, more than 1.3 seconds faster than second-place TJ Holmes. “I wanted to run faster,” Benjamin said. “But it’s okay.” . . .
Vashti Cunningham captured her third consecutive national championship in the women’s high jump with a leap of 1.96 meters. Cunningham, who is coached by her father, former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, cleared 2 meters for the first time in a June 30 meet in Palo Alto, Calif., and in Qatar she’ll aim for 2.02 meters. “Going into these higher heights after breaking that barrier, jumping 2.0, I just feel very confident and just very comfortable.”