Layden: Noah Lyles sprints to best version of himself as he makes Olympic return (2024)

EUGENE -- Noah Lyles sprinted with an autumn-like breeze at his back, shaded from the setting sun by seats rising to form the west side of Hayward Field, from starting blocks toward the finish line of the U.S. Olympic Trials 100m away, and then he kept on going, around the turn and down the backstretch of the rust-colored track, another 150m beyond what was required. He ran from Oregon toward France and the Paris Olympic Games, from a terrific now toward an ever-more promising next. He ran toward all those things.

Lyles also ran while further and more completely fulfilling a prophecy written here eight years ago, so long ago that it was in a different stadium (and in many ways, a different time). He was just 18 years old, running in a red, white and blue kit from his high school in suburban Washington, D.C. The Trials love few things more than precocity and Lyles provided it: He won a semifinal in the 200m and finished fourth in the final, missing the Olympic team by just .09-seconds. The sport of track and field, meanwhile, loves nothing more than translating that precocity to certain future greatness. Noah Lyles, the sport decided, would be great.

But anticipated greatness -- and especially Olympic greatness, the kind that counts most in track and field -- almost always takes a little more time than scheduled, and is never guaranteed. Lyles has won four individual world titles, but just a bronze medal in the 200m at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Sunday night, Lyles, now 26 years old, tied his personal best of 9.83 seconds, established in winning the world title last summer in Budapest. He drew clear of 2022 world champion Fred Kerley and Tokyo Olympic 200m silver medalist Kenny Bednarek with 30m left in the race, and as he hit the line threw his right arm into the air, and raised his index finger in celebration.

Next Saturday he will run the final of the 200m (provided he gets through the rounds, which is a near-certainty) and try to make the U.S. team in a second event and potentially become the first U.S. male sprinter to win the Olympic 100/200m double since Carl Lewis in 1984.

And the prophecy now? Looking more prescient than ever. "This is basically the play," said Lyles in his post-race press conference. "And the play is good right now."

Don't misunderstand: Lyles's resume is fabulous. If he retired tomorrow (he won't, but stay with me), he would be among the best U.S. sprinters in history. Although not the very best -- that could lie ahead. He won the 200m world title in 2019, and in 2022 again won the world title, in 19.31 seconds, breaking Michael Johnson's American record. Last summer he won the 100m and 200m at worlds, and ran on Team USA's gold medal 4x100m relay. It's what happened in the middle of all those world titles that muddies Lyles's record.

He went to the Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021 as the favorite in the 200m, but finished only third. Asked after the race what he thought about his bronze medal, he said, "Boring." (He's still not crazy about it. After Saturday's first round of the 100, asked about the medal, he said, "I don't like that thing"). But there was much more. In a long post-race interview with a group of reporters, Lyles wept openly and talked his struggle with depression (which he had revealed publicly in a social media post months earlier). He recalled a conversation in which he and his girlfriend talked about "... What a hard year it's been."

Lyles's coach, Lance Brauman said, "Long story short, Covid was hard on him. He was dinged up most of 2021, so we weren't able to do the work he needed for the hundred,"-- [Lyles did not make the U.S. team in the 100m in 2021] " -- then he got in pretty good shape and he just got beat at the Games. I mean, it's only the second time he's ever been beaten in a professional 200. It just came at a really bad time for him."

Three years have passed. Lyles's three world titles are evidence that he has recaptured his athletic peak (or is ascending toward it). He said his mental health is much improved, as well. "It's a completely different year [from 2021]," said Lyles. "I mean one, I'm not depressed. That helps. In 2021, there was a lot more pressure just because of the depression and coming off Covid. The sucky thing about Covid is that we all had to stop the progression that we had from the previous year and we were on a lot of dead time. We were training in parks, training in random places. But now coming off 2023, I had a great year to build upon for this year."

Something more. Lyles has always tried to make his races into performances, as if following in Usain Bolt's [very large] shoes. At times it seemed forced, especially in 2021. But now, Lyles seems ebullient on the track, and off it, he has peppered his season with media and social-media gags like the silver briefcase that he -- or, this weekend, Snoop Dogg -- brings into the stadium. Before the 100m final, he was introduced last of the nine starters and exploded from the tunnel behind the blocks as if already running the race and bounded 30m down the track.

"Usually I don't feel pressure because I'm just having fun," said Lyles. "All I gotta do is be me. I constantly tell kids, 'Be yourself,' and if people see that as being corny, shoot, I'm corny. But guess what? I'm winning while being corny."

Brauman says he has opening encouraged it. "He needs to be himself and that's who he is and I'm all for it. He loves it, and it gets him going. My thing is, if we're at practice and I ask him a question or I have something to say, he listens and pays attention and works hard and that's all you can ask for in my job. As for the rest of it, I mean if that stuff gets him going, if it gets him excited and he wants to be a showman, I'm all for it."

Lyles was ready in the final. After running a tight 9.92 seconds and shutting down after 60m in Saturday's heat, Lyles easily won his semifinal early Sunday evening in 9.80 seconds, with too much wind at his back for record or personal-best purposes. Lyles's sharpness notwithstanding, the final would be intensely competitive: Lyles was in Lane 7; outside him in Lane 8 was Kerley, inside him in Lane 6 was Bednarek, and down in Lane 4 was Christian Coleman, the 2019 world 100m champion who missed the Tokyo Olympics after missing several drug tests.

It was such a tough field -- and always is -- that Brauman told him, "Just make sure you're on the team." And added for reporters later, "That team is the hardest team in the world to make. Meets like these, you don't even worry about time." (Just ask Coleman, who finished a crushing fourth, .05-seconds behind Kerley).

Lyles has been working since 2021 to improve his start, and got a solid -- if not blinding -- start in the final. Both Kerley and Bednarek were marginally in front of him, but Lyles's top gear is the best in the world. "I didn't feel like I had to press very hard," said Lyles. "I felt like my knees were going straight into the track, they were directly underneath me, and every step I took felt more powerful than the last. So I'm like, I got this race, and I told myself I wasn't going to ease up at the end...."

But up went his arm, and at the top, a single index finger.

"Next time I run," said Lyles. "No celebrations."

Layden: Noah Lyles sprints to best version of himself as he makes Olympic return (2024)
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