Great Britain

‘In my head I don’t have rivals’: Noah Lyles’ quest to take Usain Bolt’s crown

Noah Lyles has already run the Olympic 100 metres final in Tokyo.

A hundred times. In his head.

“Crowd full of fans. Night time. Lights all shining down on the track. I picture myself looking at those blocks I’m very familiar with, making sure I go over my plan in my head, probably getting ready to do whatever intro I do, and I expect a lot of cheering,” he says.

Spoiler alert – his internal movie has him behind at 50, then hitting the fast forward button at 60 and smoothly cruising by the rest of the field to win the gold, maybe with a world record. It’s a textbook Lyles run.

But he’s no stranger to track and field dreams. When he was a teenager he ran into the kitchen one morning to tell his mother Keisha he’d broken the world 100m record in 9.41. “And I wasn’t even pushing!” he says.

Lyles will be 24 next month and while the Covid Olympics may not quite match the spectacle of his dreams, he genuinely believes it will herald the start of the Noah era. Natural talent, vaulting ambition, charisma and supreme confidence are a given, but he also possesses that rarest of qualities in an athlete, an aura of invincibility when it counts. Ask any of his rivals and they all name him as their greatest threat. Then ask Lyles about his rivals.

“No, I don’t think about rivals a lot. I mean, honestly, in my head I don’t have any rivals. Track and field is one of those sports where you need to focus on yourself and your own lane. For me, it’s freeing,” he says.

Win or lose, Lyles is track’s greatest showman and certain to be one of Tokyo’s big attractions. His speed seems effortlessly God-given, but he offers so much more to a sport shorn of Usain Bolt, its one truly global megastar. Lyles can excite a crowd like the Jamaican, he has the attitude, the ability and the star quality. The camera loves him.

He’s also the man widely tipped to succeed Bolt as the fastest man on earth and this weekend he takes a big step toward his first Olympics at the unforgiving US trials. As usual only the first three qualify for Tokyo. No ifs, maybes, wild cards or second chances. Lyles will also run the 200, where, as reigning world champion, he’s the out and out favourite. The 100 is more of a lottery. But he’s beaten everyone out there.

“My mindset in the 100 is more towards being aggressive, fast, still loose, there’s actually more thought in the 100, which is funny because it’s a faster race,” he says. “Going for the 200, I have a few key words going on in my head throughout the race. ‘Get out, ‘stand tall’, ‘quick and stride’, ‘hold form’, but compared to the 100, it’s a lot different. There’s a lot less thinking in the 200.”

Lyles was born in Florida, and after his parents split he grew up in a one bed apartment in a Washington DC suburb, with his mother and younger brother Josephus, where money was scarce. He had asthma, dyslexia and ADD, and struggled academically at school but excelled at sports. He liked gymnastics and the high jump, though it was watching the opening of the London Olympics on TV that really fired his imagination.

“It was the moment that everything clicked,” he says. “I think my brother came up with the idea. It was one of those moments where you wonder, ‘I want to do that,’ and then you think: ‘No, wait, I can do that’ and then it became: ‘We’re going to do that.’”

Two years later, aged just 17, he strode imperiously to victory in the World Youth Games 200m. A star was born and just about every American college beat a path to his door when he left high school. Breaking with convention he signed as a professional. Thanks to his sponsors and Diamond League victories, money is no longer scarce, but he will never forget the sacrifices his mother made. Nor the camaraderie with his brother.

“They’re my whole team, especially since my mom is like my momager, and my brother is my training partner and it’s been really nice having him get back in action, we’re really good for each other,” he says. “We balance each other out.”

Recently, the normally effervescent Lyles revealed that depression had dogged him so badly in 2020 that he sought therapy. He blamed a combination of Covid-led inactivity and the issues behind the Black Lives Matter campaign for triggering the dark clouds, but regular medication brought him back on an even keel.

Another key to battling the condition has been his alter ego – Noah Lyles the entertainer. When he’s not battling monsters as his own anime character, you’ll find him creating music – under the name Nojo18 – with a dozen singles and EPs already under his belt. And, of course, there’s the unique style. His hair changes colour and shape from race to race, and his dress sense is equally eclectic.

“For me it’s very important, it helps me get out of my mind, which, as somebody with ADD and depression and anxiety, can happen very easily,” he says. “It helps me be me, it helps me have fun, it helps go out there and give the crowd something to look forward to. I don’t want people to get bored with the sport. It can be very monotonous if all you say is: ‘Oh yeah, I go around the track in half a circle.’”

The flipside of the globetrotting circus (when it eventually returns) is the role model responsibility. He confesses that it’s one of the least enjoyable parts of his life.

Noah Lyles leads the US team to 4x100m gold at the 2019 world championships
Noah Lyles leads the US team to 4x100m gold at the 2019 world championships. Photograph: Petr David Josek/AP

“My least favourite part is how responsible I have to be. I came into the professional side of the sport when I was 19 and it basically made me have to turn into a 30-year-old, 10 years before I was ready,” he says. “Most people can go on social media and tweet whatever they want – I can’t do that. I have kids watching what I do, I have to watch what type of branding I’m putting on because now I have a job and my job is making sure I don’t mess up anything with any of my brands.

“I have to watch what I put in my body. Some people have allergies and take whatever for them; I can’t do that because a lot of those normal allergy medications have things in them that would make me test positive. These are all things that aren’t fun about my job and it makes me have to be overcautious to the point where it can make you a little paranoid, but at the end of the day, it’s totally worth it.”

So how will Noah Lyles splashdown in Tokyo?

“I’ve been thinking of a lot of looks. I’m thinking more of, instead of colours, I’m thinking of how I braid my hair. I’ve been growing it out a lot. I did an interview recently, I was talking about how of course with the Black Lives movement, so many black kids hate their hair,” he says. “They get made fun of for it, they’re made to look at their body and say, ‘I don’t like that.’ So I’ve been thinking of different hairstyles I can do that are unique to black people, to let them know that here’s a track star going to the Olympics and is proud of his hair.”

Fashion aside, Lyles does not articulate his goals in the same way as Bolt. The big Jamaican openly talked of leaving the sport as a living legend. For him it’s job done. For Lyles it’s job just starting, though he refuses to target times and medals for fear of limiting his potential.

“Medals are always more important. Records get broken all the time, but everybody remembers a medallist,” he says. “Everybody likes that Usain Bolt broke those world records, but to be honest it’s because he won three medals at three Olympics, something that no other man has done in sprinting.

“I want to be known as a person who changed the sport. Going out there, being a showman, I love being a showman, I want to encourage other people to say you don’t have to be super aggressive when you go out there for a 100 or a 200.”

Asked how writers in the future may document his own career, as the next Olympic 100m champion, Lyles is crystal clear. ‘“I hope there’s a note on me about how good the crowd engagement was,” he says. “I hope they talk about how well I boosted other people’s careers and how I made a blueprint for others. And of course, it’s gonna say I was fast.”

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