“I get excited when I lose,” says Noah Lyles, a statement that appears at odds with the 21-year-old’s ravenous thirst for winning – but hear him out on this.
“When I lose, it means there’s more talent coming up and it forces me to be better. I get to go to practice, which is one of my favourite things to do, and improve.”
That’s refreshing, I tell him, to hear an athlete espouse not just the pain of hard graft but also its pleasure, given so many view it as a necessary evil on the path to peak performance.
“I legit love getting up knowing I have practice; it’s another chance to make yourself better. It’s another time to break your body down to get stronger and when you think about that, it’s crazy. But every time you’re hurting your body is telling you it’s not prepared and needs to adapt, and it will get stronger and better next time.”
After a near-flawless year, the question now is how much stronger, how much faster, Lyles can get.
Building ‘grown-man muscles’
In recent weeks he resumed training at his base in Clermont, Florida, where the emphasis through the winter will be on developing what he refers to as “grown-man muscles.”
“I’m really going to get in the weight room and hit it, develop the muscles you need to produce more power at the start of the race,” he says. “That is definitely an area we’re going to start hammering.”
As good as he is, he can pinpoint with a sniper’s accuracy the areas in which he needs to get better.
“My start,” he says quickly. “It’s always going to be my start, and that’s going to come from being a little bit older.
Despite his mediocre start (and in this sense, we’re judging with the harsh perfectionism of the world’s fastest athletes) Lyles managed to win the 100m title this year at both the US Championships and IAAF Continental Cup, the former in a PB of 9.88.
It was a win that shocked many, though not Lyles or indeed his coach, Lance Brauman.
“During the season I told Lance, ‘I think I can win US Championships,’ and he said, ‘I think you can too,’” recalls Lyles. “I felt really good through the rounds and before the final I was like, ‘I’m going to win this.’”
But as great a race as that was, in 2018 it was the longer sprint, the 200m, in which Lyles set off into the stratosphere. He had a perfect record at the distance – five races, five wins – and his times were a model of breath-taking consistency: 19.83, 19.69, 19.69, 19.65, 19.67. Those successes forged the path to several honours this year, among them the Jesse Owens Awards as the best US male athlete of the year and his selection as a finalist for IAAF Male World Athlete of the Year.
Only one man, Usain Bolt, has ever gone below 19.7 four times in one season, and Lyles takes considerable confidence from walking – sprinting – a similar path to the Jamaican great, whose times he has surpassed at equivalent ages.
“It’s very re-assuring to know what I’m doing now is something someone who ran so fast was doing. The goal is to run faster than him, and I’ll have to pick up the pace a little bit and break all his records.”
His 200m race breakdown
Lyles may be a creative, artistic type, but when he breaks down the 200m – his favourite event – he does so with the clinical eye of an engineer.
First: his start.
“I don’t care who is in front of me – get out, get out, get out,” he says. “Gun goes off, BAM, I’m off. The first three steps my toe needs to be dang-near touching the floor, almost like you’re dragging your toes and my shin angles need to be coming forward, not up.
“After that it’s quick steps right after the other, and I’m starting to come up, into my stride, making sure I’m in the middle of the track. As we start to get to the last part of the bend, I’m hammering.”
At this point, Lyles forms a fist and whacks the palm of his opposite hand, mimicking the rapid rhythm of his mid-race stride.
“Then I go from the middle of the lane to the inside of the lane and by the time I get to the straightaway, you kind of slingshot out. After that it’s like, give it the rest I have. How well can I hold my form? How well do I know I’m not going to break before the person who’s trying to catch me will break?”
After each race there is an inevitable debrief with Brauman, and as young as he is Lyles is scathing when it comes to any of his technical imperfections.
“It’s funny because he’ll sometimes say that was a great race and I’ll tell him things I did wrong,” says Lyles. “I’m looking more for mistakes than what I did right. We’re always trying to make the race better and the moment I have nothing to critique is the moment I know I can’t progress.”
Doha double ambitions
Looking ahead to next season, he sees plenty of scope for improvement ahead of the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019.
“The goal is definitely to double but depending on how the season goes, we will prioritise the 200 because me and coach feel that’s where I’m the most strong. The 100 is there because I like it and am good at it, but I’m still fine-tuning to make it better. I have so much to learn and I’m already running 9.8.”
After being hit by injury in 2017 Lyles missed out on the IAAF World Championships in London, a disappointment that took some time to get over. “It hurt a lot because I was favourite but it wasn’t my time,” he says.
As such, next year represents a golden opportunity for Lyles to position himself as the man to beat as the clock ticks towards Tokyo 2020.
“I want to be the world champion before I go to the Olympics so I have that big name coming in,” he says.
Both before and after races, Lyles became known for his expressive nature throughout the 2018 season, something that extends to his spare time in the off-season.
As a full-time athlete, he passes the hours between sessions by painting his shoes, sketching drawings and he’s recently been collaborating with his sponsor Adidas to design t-shirts for the 2019 Boston Marathon.
Then there is his fledgling rap career, still in its infancy but holding all the same aspirations of replicating his on-track achievements.
“I want to create something people can hear and say, ‘wow, that is beautiful,’” he says.
It’s something many have already said, and will continue to say, whenever they witness Lyles run the 200m – the young apprentice, slowly and assuredly mastering his trade.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF