DES MOINES — When he steps on the track, Noah Lyles aims to do more than win. He wants to entertain, to put himself on full display. His performance includes a routine that begins as the camera is pointed at him, just before he enters the starting blocks. He had known since last August what he would do Sunday night at the U.S. outdoor track and field championships.
When the camera reached Lane 5 and the public address announcer bellowed his name, Lyles crouched and waved his long arms in rapid circles, in the style of mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor.
“That’s what he does when he always comes into the octagon,” Lyles said. “It’s when he knows he’s going to win.”
Lyles wants to become a star by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and when he gets there he wants to win three gold medals. Those ambitions, realistic as they may be, materialized even before Lyles had won a single championship of major significance. He finally received a chance Sunday night, and he executed as he promised.
Lyles won the national championship in the men’s 200 meters in convincing fashion, dusting his seven competitors in 19.78 seconds through a steady rain. He pulled away from most of the field early and separated late from 100-meter champion Christian Coleman (20.02), his primary rival, running in the lane to his left.
“There’s a lot of things I wanted to have happen this year,” said Lyles, a 22-year-old who attended T.C. Williams High in Alexandria. “And this was the highest on the list.”
His time fell far short of his best, but Lyles ranked the result at the top of his nascent career, right next to the 19.50 he ran last month, which made him the fourth-fastest man ever in his best event. Lyles had never run three rounds of one event, and he had never claimed a prize, for all his blazing times, equivalent to a national championship to make a world championship team.
Lyles’s previous chance to make a senior national team, in 2017, ended in disappointment. He envisioned 2017 nationals as his breakout moment, a step on the way to his first championship. But in his first preliminary heat, he tweaked his hamstring and determined that continuing at the meet would be too great of a long-term risk. When he watched the final, he thought, “I could have done that.” As he racked up accolades, elite times and wins, his lack of a world championship remained.
“[What happened in] 2017 is like you having the money to buy your dream car, and you’re literally about to sign the paper, and you get a call, and you’re told your mom or your dad needs emergency surgery, and only you have the money to save it,” Lyles said earlier this summer. “And you know what you need to do. So you put the pen down, and you go get the surgery. And you wait until you get that money.”
After he won Sunday, Lyles spotted his mother in the bleachers. He shouted to her over the crowd: “In 2017, we pulled out of the 200 for a reason. And today, God told me that reason was now.”
He left no doubt. Lyles roared out of the blocks. He and Coleman separated themselves after the first 100 meters, turning the race into a duel. Lyles repelled Coleman’s charge, extending his lead as he reached the tape. As he crossed the line, Lyles raised his left arm.
After slowing, Lyles turned around, smiling wide, and extended his hand toward Coleman. In the spring, Lyles had beaten Coleman in the 100 — Coleman’s signature event — and declared it “the start of my legacy” as a 100 and 200 sprinter. Coleman responded with social media shade. Their relationship has been frosty, a clash between Coleman’s all-business approach and Lyles’s showmanship.
After a race this year in Shanghai, Lyles had tried to embrace Coleman, to no avail. This time, Lyles said, Coleman initiated the embrace.
“The last time I tried to dap him up, he kind of didn’t want to dap me up,” Lyles said. “I was really surprised on that.”
Per Lyles’s recollection, Coleman told him, “Nice race,” and Lyles complimented Coleman on running the double. Per Coleman’s recollection, “We didn’t talk.”
Coleman had run three 100-meter races this weekend en route to his title; Lyles, who wants to run the 100 in Tokyo, sat out the event to increase his chances of victory in the 200. After Lyles beat him, Coleman was magnanimous.
“I don’t look at it like that,” Coleman said. “I feel like I do a lot of training. I feel like I was built to do the double. With me, there’s no excuses.”
Whatever their past, Coleman and Lyles are teammates now. Lyles hopes to run the 4x400 in Qatar this fall at the world championships. Coleman said this weekend he would welcome passing the baton with Lyles, and Lyles agreed.
“He does him, I do me,” Lyles said. “We’re going to come together, and we’re going to run a bomb 4x100.”
After he finished his exchange with Coleman, Lyles found an empty portion of track for his post-race dance — another part of his routine. A friend had suggested he do “the KD dance,” shimmying in the viral manner of Kevin Durant before he played an NBA Finals game. He practiced in front of a mirror for a day.
Just before he entered the blocks, the NBC broadcast showed a split-screen of Lyles and a character from the Japanese anime series Dragon Ball Z, which Saturday he had explained was the inspiration for his silver-dyed hair. Apprised of the comparison, Lyles was delighted. He wants the world to know his interests and to think of him as both a runner and a creative force.
Last year, while lining up for a 100-meter race, Lyles looked around and realized everyone had short hair, so he decided to grow his out.
“I want to distinguish myself from everybody else,” he said. “Because who wants to be the same as everybody else? Who wants to be forgotten as just that guy who was fast? When I leave, people are going to remember me not for just being fast, but all the things that I left behind while I do it.”
Those are big plans for a 22-year-old, but Lyles has managed to enjoy the present. Having turned professional out of high school, he has reached the top of his sport in three years. On Sunday night, he beat the fastest men in America. At one point, he knelt down, put his chin on his fist and thanked God. He hugged his mother afterward.
He’ll race against the world’s best in two months. He plans to dance there, too.
“Have you ever imagined your dream life?” Lyles said. “Well, I’m living mine.”
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