“At the end of the day, I’m a performer,” Lyles said. “I like to have fun.”
After a tumultuous Olympic year that ended with a bronze medal he called “boring,” Lyles is having fun again. He arrived in Eugene as the defending world champion and, in his words, “the most me I’ve been in years.” The stadium is full; his brother, Josephus, is on the U.S. team; his mental outlook is brighter — and he has a new rival close on his heels.
Thursday night’s 200-meter showdown between Lyles, who attended T.C. Williams (now Alexandria City) High, and 18-year-old phenom Erriyon Knighton may be the most anticipated event of this meet. In April, a few months before he graduated high school, Knighton ran 200 meters in 19.49 seconds, which made him the fourth-fastest man ever and surpassed Lyles’s best time by 0.01 seconds. Last month, Lyles chased down Knighton at the U.S. championships and, as he edged him at the line, pointed across Knighton’s face at the clock — 19.67 for Lyles, 19.69 for Knighton.
Afterward, Lyles and Knighton stood shoulder-to-shoulder for an on-track interview with NBC.
“Job’s not finished,” Knighton said, stomping away. “It’s never finished.”
Lyles shouted in his direction, “Never finished!”
“I’m always here for competition,” Lyles said this week. “The fact that somebody has beaten my PR, no matter by how little margin, it gives me an incentive to step up. I’ve been waiting for the day when somebody has come to push me. We’re there. It’s happening.”
Ever the showman, Lyles embraces the rivalry with Knighton — but only for about 19½ seconds at a time. They both run for Adidas. At national meets, Lyles has offered Knighton advice about the business of track and field.
“It’s real chill,” Knighton said. “There’s no beef or nothing.”
“He’s got no weight to him yet, no pressure,” Lyles said last month. “It’s fun to race against somebody who doesn’t have pressure on their back yet. I remember those days. They were fun. … Now I have a world championship on my back and even an Olympic medal on my back. So I’m always going to be a target. It’s something I’ve got to deal with.”
It is possible Knighton’s presence has pushed Lyles. The latter won his semifinal Tuesday in 19.62 seconds, a surprising time for a preliminary round. It is more likely that Lyles’s recent excellence owes to the difference in this year and last.
As he prepared for Tokyo, Lyles opened up about his mental health struggles in the wake of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. He took antidepressants that affected his training. At the Olympics, he traveled without his support staff and lacked energy in an empty stadium — he loves to perform, but he had nobody to perform for. He entered as the favorite but finished third after barely making the final. Afterward, in an emotional outpouring, he cried as he said he wished Josephus had made the Olympics instead of him.
This year is “completely different,” Lyles said. He winnowed his inner circle, bringing the people he needed closer and pushing others out. Working with his therapist, he rediscovered his motivation. Rather than focusing on victory, he wants foremost to entertain.
“Just finding myself again,” he said. “Running for the reasons I wanted to run.”
At a U.S. relay camp last week, Lyles was eating lunch with Josephus. They turned professional together coming out of high school, a rare step for sprinters, and dreamed of competing on the same U.S. team. Lyles reflected on lonely meals in his sterile dorm room in Tokyo. “Dang, bro,” Noah told Josephus. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
“It’s always better to have your brother there, your best friend,” Lyles said. “To everything he’s accomplished already, to be honest, it’s exactly what we’ve been waiting to see since we first turned pro.”
Elsewhere in Eugene, Wednesday night brought disappointment for a pair of U.S. champions. Reigning Olympic gold medalist Valarie Allman lost her grip on discus dominance to China’s Bin Feng, settling for bronze despite entering as the heavy favorite.
Allman became the first American woman to win a discus medal at a world championships, but three feet separated her from the prize she expected to win.
“It’s easy to lose perspective,” she said. “It’s an honor. … It was bittersweet today. I feel that I had so much I could have shown today, and it would have been special to do it here at home.”
Donavan Brazier’s reign as the men’s 800-meter world champion ended as he faded to sixth in his preliminary heat during his attempt to atone for his stunning last-place finish at last summer’s Olympic trials.
Brazier deserved a gold medal for accountability. He was one of the most dominant athletes in the sport in 2019 and 2020, setting the American record at the 2019 world championships. Nagging injuries have derailed a career once headed for all-time status. He will undergo surgery to repair microtears in his Achilles’ tendon and shave down bone spurs in his heel.
“That’s no f—ing excuse for what happened out there,” Brazier said. “ … I looked terrible. It’s been two years since I looked halfway decent. Don’t by any means think I’m trying to blame it on that, because I’m not. Those guys were out there today are just better than me. There’s no other answer besides that. … I want to be the USA runner. I want to be the Allyson Felix, the Dalilah Muhammad — all them legendary athletes. I’m doing a poor job of that right now.”
To make matters worse, U.S. champion Bryce Hoppel finished fifth in his heat, and Jonah Koech was disqualified for jostling, leaving the United States with no runners in the final.
That certainly won’t be the case in the 200, even with Fred Kerley, who topped the 100-meter podium next to teammates Marvin Bracy-Williams and Trayvon Bromell, failing to qualify for the final after a quadriceps injury in his semifinal Tuesday; his agent said Wednesday that he won’t compete again at worlds. But Olympic silver medalist Kenny Bednarek qualified with the third-fastest time of the preliminary rounds. Reigning Olympic champion Andre De Grasse of Canada pulled out, owing to a slow recovery from a recent bout with the coronavirus.
Once the 200 ends, Lyles and Knighton are likely to join forces. Both could be chosen for the 4×100 relay, which the United States won at the previous world championships. The Americans also added to their slapstick Olympic history in Tokyo, dropping the baton in the qualifying round. The miscue probably cost Lyles, who would have run in the final, another Olympic medal.
Lyles may be back to running for reasons other than medals. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about them.
“All I’m going to say is — I’ve been saying this for years — when I’m on the relay, we ain’t losing. Point blank,” Lyles said. “And we might break the world record. Just saying.”