By Nancy Armour |
Even with all those Olympic gold medals and all those world records, it took more than Usain Bolt’s dazzling speed to make him an international icon.
It took his personality. The way he turned each race into a theatrical event, preening and posing before settling into the blocks, flashing that megawatt smile as he blazed across the finish line, dancing and doing his signature “To Di World” pose as adoring crowds cheered.
Bolt made running fast look easy. More than that, he made it look fun.
Something else he and Noah Lyles have in common.
If you don’t know Lyles’ name yet, you will soon enough. The 21-year-old is faster than Bolt was at the same age in both the 100 and 200 meters, and his eclectic socks, creative victory celebrations and Renaissance Man interests are sure to make him the breakout star of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“If I can come out here and be that big name that everybody sees, but they see that I’m having fun with it, that it’s a love instead of something that I’m forcing myself to do, I feel it will encourage others to try and go for their dreams,” Lyles told USA TODAY Sports recently. “Because when I was younger, I was scared of growing up. Because I thought I was going to have to get a normal job.
“But look at me now. I get paid to run in a circle,” he said, erupting in a loud laugh. “What’s better than that?”
“Room to Grow”
American track athletes, sprinters in particular, have always followed the same path. Run in college, turn professional after. But Lyles and his younger brother, Josephus, decided early that they were going to be different.
They knew they had talent; both of their parents were sprinters at Seton Hall, and they were running on the high school team in Alexandria, Va., when they were still in junior high. Josephus was part of the U.S. team that won the 4×400 relay at the junior world championships in 2014 while Noah won the 200 meters at the Youth Olympic Games the same year.
Noah also made the Olympic trials in 2016, finishing fourth and missing a spot on the Rio team by .09 seconds.
If they could run that fast, at that young age, why not bypass college and turn professional right away? Which is what they did, giving up their scholarships to Florida and signing with Adidas in July 2016. They were the first male sprinters to go pro out of high school.
That fall, they moved from Virginia to Clermont, about 20 minutes west of Orlando, to train with Lance Brauman, who coached Tyson Gay.
Noah had just turned 19, Josephus 18.
“It was VERY hard,” said Keisha Bishop, the Lyles’ mother. “They didn’t know how to cook, Noah didn’t have a (driver’s) license. Right before I left them, I think I just cried. But I told them that we are living our dream, and the only thing that can stop them is themselves.”
While Josephus’ first year as a professional was slowed by his recovery from a quadriceps injury that had ended his senior high school season early, Noah flourished in the new atmosphere. He won the overall Diamond League title in the 200 meters, and went under 20 seconds in winning an earlier Diamond League event in Shanghai.
But what he did last year was unprecedented.
Lyles went under 19.7 in the 200 four times, and the 19.65 he ran in Monaco ties for the eighth-fastest ever run. He also ran a 9.88 in the 100 meters which, for a time, was the fastest in the world last year.
And for those keeping track, Lyles’ times in both events are faster than what Bolt was running at this age. Lyles’ personal record in the 100 came a month before his 21st birthday; Bolt didn’t run a sub-10 until he was almost 22. The Monaco race was two days after Lyles turned 21; Bolt was a month shy of his 22nd birthday the first time he ran a sub-19.7.
“(Lyles) was the high school national record holder in the 200 so obviously he projected to be really good,” Brauman said. “Now, you can’t project a guy who, in two years, (can) rip off 19.6 anytime he wants to.
“His progression has been good,” he added. “It’s been consistent, and I think he still has room to grow in both events, which is what’s exciting to me.”
While the questions about Bolt have already worn thin, Lyles understands the comparisons. Like Bolt, he is a natural showman, and he knows his oversized personality could do wonders for a sport that struggles for attention in the U.S. between Olympics.
The Diamond League race in Doha, Qatar, last year was on May 4 and Lyles, a huge Star Wars fan, made sure everyone realized the significance of the day. He wore R2D2 socks, and swung an imaginary lightsaber to celebrate his win.
He’s also done dances from the online video game Fortnite at the finish line, and revved up the crowd before races by calling for a “spirit bomb” from the Japanese TV series Dragon Ball Z. His sock game is so strong — he’s featured, among others, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Power Rangers and The Incredibles — that fans now ask for previews.
“I will get kids from all across the country on my Instagram, ‘What socks are you wearing this week? Where did you get your socks? What’s the theme?’ ” Lyles said.
“I’m having fun, and I enjoy people seeing that,” he added. “And I know that track and field isn’t the most popular thing in the United States, but I want to make it bigger. One way to do that is to make sure people are entertained. When they come out, they want to see a race. But they might want to see a little more.
“Everybody goes to a basketball game because they want to see somebody dunk. That’s the extra you get to go to the basketball game,” Lyles continued. “Showing a little dance or doing a little extra before a race, those are your little moments. You find opportunities everywhere. You just have to think about it.”
“I’m going to break that”
Finding those opportunities appeals to Lyles’ artistic side — which is considerable. Art was his refuge when he was a child and had severe asthma, and he’s focusing more on it again now that he has free time when he’s not training or working out.
The den in the house he shares with Josephus and another teammate has several intricate Lego structures — though Lyles is annoyed because some of them came apart when they moved a few months back and he still hasn’t found all the pieces. He’s turned the guest bedroom into his “creative” room; the closet is now a recording studio and there’s a table where he paints along one wall of the room.
It’s also where he customizes his shoes, the work so detailed that Lyles’ mom is often asked where she got the pair he did for her. Another pair that he’s dubbed his “cherry blossom shoes” — delicate cherry blossoms bloom along the outside of the shoe, with his name and “pink spring” written in Japanese characters — look like something out of an ad in a fashion magazine.
Lyles walked the runway during Paris Fashion Week in January, and designed socks for Adidas that were sold at the Boston Marathon last weekend. Someday, he’d love to design his own clothing line.
But that’s for later, when he’s broken all the records and distanced himself from Bolt.
“Whatever Usain did was awesome. The man ran incredible times,” Lyles said. “I see that as a great way to say, ‘I’m going to break that, and then I’m going to get even bigger than him.’ “
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.