Noah Lyles has been running in a void. Nearly every time he sets foot on the track, he’s a blur that’s opening eyes, building expectations and slowly giving shape to the future.
Barely two years removed from high school at T.C. Williams, the sprinter is quickly helping redefine the post-Usain Bolt era of track and field. He hasn’t lost an outdoor 200-meter race since 2016. This year, Lyles is having the kind of season that raises hopes for next year’s world championships and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Going from race to race, my confidence is usually high, no matter what,” Lyles said in a recent telephone interview. “Truthfully, I don’t think anybody can take that away right now. I’m already running fast, I’m still young, and I have so much more to improve on.”
Lyles’s breakout season has been nothing short of meteoric. He made a rare decision to pass on college, foregoing a scholarship to the University of Florida and embarking immediately on a professional career in 2016. In short order, he has developed into perhaps the most promising of a young crop of sprinters, all eyeing the throne vacated when the iconic Bolt retired following the 2016 Olympics.
“People are always looking for the next whatever. I brush it off,” Lyles said. “I’m just trying to be the next Noah Lyles. I don’t have time to worry about Usain Bolt. I’m doing what I can do to be the best.”
He has been making a pretty good case thus far, and competes again Friday in Monaco in the 200 meters.
This year, he has won Diamond League events in Doha, Qatar, and Lausanne, Switzerland. He twice has posted a time of 19.69 seconds in the 200 — which would’ve bested Bolt’s gold medal-winning mark from the Rio Games two years ago. Lyles’s top wind-legal finish in the 100 this season is 9.88, which would’ve been good enough for silver in Rio.
He celebrated his 21st birthday Wednesday and is the only sprinter to break 10 seconds in the 100 and 19.70 in the 200 before turning 21.
“My goal is the same as when I started,” he said. “My goal has been to make sure I’d be the dominant figure going into next year. When we go into world championships next year and they call out my name, I want people to say, ‘That’s the kid that’s going to win.’ I feel I’ve done a good job of making that known.”
While the international field might be deeper next season — one year out from the Tokyo Olympics — this summer’s races have highlighted some of the sport’s young talent, particularly the fledgling Americans jockeying for position. In last Friday’s 100-meter final at a Diamond League event in Rabat, Morocco, Lyles squared off against Ronnie Baker, Mike Rodgers and Christian Coleman, promising sprinters who could help return the United States to the top of an Olympic podium after a decade dominated by Jamaica’s Bolt.
“I always get excited when I see guys like that in there,” Lyles said of the young field. “I don’t get pleasure from running by myself. I get pleasure from running against fast people, making me push beyond my limits. I’m always excited to race against fast people. You can’t get faster running by yourself.”
The results in Rabat showed just how close they are. Coleman and Baker ran 9.98s — Coleman was awarded first by six thousandths of a second — with Lyles finished a hundredth of a second behind, taking third in 9.99.
Lyles makes no secret that he regards the 100 and 200 differently. He might challenge in both, but he knows right now he’s stronger in the longer distance. His two 19.69s in the 200 this season (tied for the world’s leading time with Clarence Munyai, a 20-year-old South African) are the fastest the sport has seen since Bolt’s 19.55 at the 2015 world championships.
“I definitely enjoy the 200 way more,” Lyles said. “It’s more of a chance for me to open up and show my endurance. The 100 is one of those races where I want to be fast and I want to have fun. But I don’t take it quite as seriously. I almost expect people to challenge me in the 100. But the 200, I want to dominate the whole race.”
Lyles and his younger brother, Josephus, turned pro together, signing with Adidas in July 2016. They’ve been training with Lance Brauman in Clermont, Fla. Lyles provided a short preview last year of his potential, winning his first Diamond League event at 19 years old by posting a 19.90 in the 200 in Shanghai. But he injured his hamstring later in the season and had to miss the world championships.
“I didn’t get nearly as much work in. This year, we actually did a lot more strength training in the offseason to make sure my body could handle the whole season,” he said. “We’re able to focus more on technique instead of just trying to make sure I’m in shape.”
Since bouncing back late last season, Lyles has lost only one outdoor race, a second-place 100-meter finish in Jamaica — a race in which he still set a then-personal best of 9.93 seconds.
“Even when I’m taking my losses, I’m still very confident and very optimistic about what the next race holds,” he said. “In Jamaica, I ran my first 9, and that was my first loss of the season. I was more excited because I finally ran a legal 9 and I had something to work on when I went back home.”
Despite his recent successes, this season has been all about establishing himself and setting benchmarks to build on. Wins this year are important, but he’s still only midway through the four-year Olympic cycle. Next year, the competition will be tougher and the stakes higher.
“I think that’s the goal for everybody: trying to set yourself up for the Olympics,” he said. “Right now, the biggest goal is to make sure I’m the dominant guy in my event, move on to be world champion and then try to become Olympic champion. That’s always in your head, but you really have to just focus on what’s right in front of you.”