Noah Lyles danced on the red carpet at Hayward Field. He clapped his hands and scrambled to take selfies with fans, smiling like he’d just won another World Cup.
He had not. He won a preliminary heat on Monday in the 200m, his signature event. He was still one race and three nights away from his new rival, Erion Knighton, the teenage prodigy that Lyles, who turned 25 on Monday, was not so long ago.
Most importantly, however, Lyles appeared light years removed from that heavy and hot night in Tokyo last year when he collapsed after winning bronze in the 200, an event most expected him to win.
Lyles wasn’t dancing that night, and there weren’t enough fans in the stadium to even shake his hand, let alone share a photo. That night, she was just another in a line of celebrity athletes at the Games, talking to the world about her struggles with mental health, going on and off antidepressants, and trying not to let go win or lose. .
“A lot of work, a lot of therapy,” Lyle said Monday night of how he got to such a different place despite constant pressure to regain his dominance.
This evolution would have been hard to foresee a year ago, perhaps as hard as it might have been to imagine how acceptable it would be for elite athletes to share their mental health struggles almost as much as they talk about their knee. Pain and muscle aches. But that’s what happened for both Lyles and the sport more broadly.
Over the past year, Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles; Simone Biles, the world’s best gymnast; and Naomi Osaka, one of the top tennis players, all learned of their mental health struggles and left their careers.
On Monday, Lyles described a series of epiphanies, as well as the end of a not-so-great relationship, that had a dramatic and positive effect on her mental state and a better understanding of why she has devoted so much of her life. Try to run half the track faster than anyone else.
One such realization came to him last winter at the Millrose Games, an indoor winter meet in New York. Lyles signed up to race in ’60, but he wasn’t sure why. He is no standout in the event and has been surrounded by champions.
“How did I get into this race?” he recalled.
Then he saw a post on social media about a kind of theater run, with Lyles as one of its stars, from Michael Johnson, a four-time Olympic gold medalist known for his golden spikes.
“It’s been said that people don’t go to races to watch people run, they go because they enjoy watching you run,” Lyles said. “It spoke to me.”
The second epiphany came during a therapy session when he was talking about how disappointed he had been with his performances last year, especially at the Olympics. They were average for him, anyway, although it’s worth noting that the average version of him runs the 200 in 19.7 seconds. Usain Bolt’s world record is 19.19.
His therapist explained to him that he is a performer at heart and that performers need an audience. For nearly two years, the pandemic deprived him of it, culminating in the Olympics, where the track was developed in a largely empty stadium that was supposed to be filled with 70,000 screaming fans.
“If the crowd isn’t there, you’re going to run average,” Lyles was told by his therapist.
And suddenly, some of last year’s sadness made more sense to him. There were other forces at work, forces that Lyles revealed on that tearful night in Tokyo.
He felt guilty that he made it to the Olympics while his younger brother, Josephus, did not. Over the years, countless people have told him he should be the next Usain Bolt, but he’s just trying to figure out who he is. He struggled with depression and decided to open up about his mental health, including years of therapy as a child, after his mother, who also struggled with mental illness, saw that her son shared some of his emotional traits.
“I’m not defined by being an Olympic bronze medalist, or a world gold medalist, or a high school student who went pro,” he said that night. “This is not who I am. I’m Noah Lyles. I am not the successor of Usain Bolt. I am not the successor of Andre de Grasse. I am nobody’s heir. I am me and I will always be that way.”
On Thursday night, Lyles will face Knighton, an 18-year-old phenom seen in track circles as his and Bolt’s successor. Knighton finished fourth in the 200 in Tokyo, breaking Bolt’s junior record at the distance.
So far at Oregon, Knighton has been quiet, composed and quick. He won his semifinal in 19.77 seconds to Lyles’ 19.62.
Knighton described Lyles on Tuesday as a “good friend.”
“We try to put each other on the track as much as we can,” he said of Lyle.
The comparisons to Bolt and his performances haven’t changed him, Knighton said. It is the same as last year, with one difference.
“I’m faster,” he said.
For Lyle, the differences are hard to overstate.
“The last time I had this much fun was 2018,” he said in Eugene. “I’ve got energy, I’m in shape, and I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s have fun.’