A man of many interests, Olympian Noah Lyles is now only focused on winning the 200-meter dash
Track gives him a platform to do many things – one of them is showing support for Black Lives Matter
Noah Lyles raised his arms, hands open, his head staring to the heavens, before letting out a bellowing roar.
His prerace routines have become must-watch. This one is more subdued than usual, as Lyles prepared to race in the 200-meter final in the U.S. Track and Field Olympic trials last month in Eugene, Oregon.
Cheers turn to silence at Hayward Field as the runners put their feet on the starting blocks. Lyles is the reigning world champion in the 200 meters, posting a time of 19.83 seconds in Doha, Qatar, in 2019. At the trials, his main competition was 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, who beat Lyles in the semifinal heat.
To qualify for the Olympic team, Lyles required a season’s best.
The gun went off and the runners launched themselves from the starting blocks. Kenny Bednarek, the 22-year-old who won the 200 at the 2021 Diamond League event in Doha, Qatar, led the race, making the turn for home.
Lyles was second, within striking distance of catching Bednarek.
As Lyles ran the straight portion of the race, his speed increased. No one was catching him. This race, on a warm Sunday evening, in front of a raucous crowd, not only earned Lyles a qualification to his first Olympic Games, but it signaled to the world that he was back.
“Gosh, it sounds nice,” Lyles, 23, said when asked what it means to be an Olympian. “I don’t think anyone could prepare you for the lion you have to slay during Olympic trials. This is the hardest team to make. Everyone here shows it.”
Now that he’s on the U.S. team, he’ll be running for the Olympic gold beginning Aug. 3 in Tokyo.
obvious talent from an early age
Kevin Lyles knew his son, Noah, was different. As a little boy, Noah spent hours drawing artwork, coming up with eclectic creations. This wasn’t drawing stick figures; Noah crafted unique designs and cartoon characters.
“At 8 years old, Noah was drawing Spider-Man in a cityscape,” Kevin Lyles said. “Spatial visualization, he’s always been great with that.”
The childhood doodling turned into a passion for Lyles. Look at his socks when he runs and they are plastered with cartoons. When he isn’t racing or competing for big races, Lyles seeks refuge in his artistic creations. Whether it’s drawing anime characters, playing video games or creating hip-hop tunes, Lyles possesses a plethora of interests away from the track.
“I’ve always been artistic in some form,” Lyles said in a Team USA article. “I love drawing, painting. Music is the newest of my hobbies. This has just been me expressing myself outside of track.”
The blazing speed that Lyles inherits permeates his bloodline. His parents, Kevin and Keisha, both ran track at Seton Hall University. The achievements are immense; Keisha Caine was a nine-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion in the 4×400-meter relay. Kevin Lyles won gold in the 4×400 at the 1993 Summer Universiade. Noah’s brother, Josephus, who ran in the Olympic trials, is a rising track star, a junior world champion in 2014 in the same category his parents were victorious in, the 4×400.
The Lyles family tradition of success at track isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
“He has his goals and dreams,” Kevin Lyles said. “When you’re in the middle of chasing a dream, you’re focused. Noah is focused in putting one foot in front of another and doing what needs to be done.”
At first, Lyles didn’t compete in track. He demonstrated his athletic ability playing basketball, softball and doing the trampoline in gymnastics. At 11 years old, Lyles competed in the high jump before shifting to the track. When Kevin Lyles coached track in Maryland, he often brought Lyles to practices. He wasn’t the fastest to begin with, but by the eighth grade, young Lyles started to show speed.
Kevin Lyles coached his son during the early years of his career, before Lyles moved to Florida. Despite his own history with track, Kevin Lyles struck a balance between motivating his son while being a supportive father.
“I saw parents who were overbearing. I saw parents who didn’t have a perspective on track, so they allowed their athletes to fall by the wayside,” Kevin Lyles said. “I saw the whole spectrum, so I tried to keep it down the middle with Noah. I didn’t want to push where it was too much, but I wanted to make sure he had an appetite for track.”
Lyles burst onto the international scene at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, when he won gold in the 200 meters. Myles Marshall, who competed in the 800 at the same event, remembers Lyles well. Many of the athletes at the Youth Olympics are teenagers, with little to no global experience racing.
Marshall said that while he was nervous for the event, it was Lyles who broke the ice among the American athletes with his youthful energy.
“He had a great personality, friendly with everyone and close with the sprinters,” Marshall said. “Having someone who could have a good time gives you permission to have a great time yourself. It’s always nice to have someone who can make it fun for everyone else.”
Brandon Taylor recalls a similar experience with Lyles during the 2016 World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Taylor ran alongside Lyles for the United States during the 4×100, which won gold. Away from the track, Lyles laughed and smiled, whether it was showing off a new dance move or expressing his love for anime.
With limited internet connection and no TV, Lyles brightened the spirits of the team.
“The personality away from the track is the personality on the track,” Taylor said. “From the dancing and loudness to playing competitive Uno, he always had a big smile. He was laughing all the time.”
In 2016. Lyles had a banner year. He made the finals of the Virginia State Championship, won at both the New Balance Nationals (200) and the Arcadia Invitational (100 and 200). Despite not qualifying for the 2016 Olympic team, Lyles broke a 31-year-old national high school record in the 200 meters, clocking a 20.09-second time. According to Kevin Lyles, it was at Lyles’ first Diamond League meet in 2017 in Shanghai where he took a massive leap in his development. He ran a 19.90 in the 200, setting a new personal best at the time. As he did in the Olympic trials for Tokyo, Lyles broke away from his fellow competitors during the final 100 meters.
As he crossed the finish line first, Lyles pointed to the time. Kevin Lyles saw something different in his son that night in Shanghai.
“After he ran a 19.90, I was like, ‘Oh, he’s there. He’s ready to compete with everyone,’ ” he said.
passionate about Black Lives Matter
As Lyles prepared to follow up his successful 2019 season, which included two golds at the world championships, the coronavirus pandemic halted his plans. With the Olympics postponed, Lyles used the delay to improve areas of his race.
When the police murder of George Floyd occurred, Lyles shifted his focus. He spoke out on social media about the difficulties Black athletes face when calling out racial injustice, citing that “it is disheartening to know that my people are being killed while I go out and win medals for them to try and make the U.S. look good.”
The racial reckoning prompted Lyles to use music as a platform to illustrate his thoughts. On July 4, 2020, Lyles released a hip-hop single called “A Black Life” to help spread the word of injustice.
“What’s the point of preaching / we are past the point of speaking,” Lyles said in his lyrics, as he exemplifies the anger felt by many Black Americans, seeing so many of their own die due to police brutality.
The Olympic trials occurred more than a year after Floyd’s death. And Lyles remains an active advocate for racial equality, not wanting the spirit of Black Lives Matter to dissipate. Before the 100-meter final, Lyles raised his fist, as John Carlos once did on the podium during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
“Black Lives Matter,” Lyles said when explaining why he raised his fist. “We are still dying in the streets. Just because we stopped talking about it in the news or just because the Olympics are still going on, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening.
“I am Black, so you could just hear a report about me tomorrow dying for no reason. I’m pretty sure some people will be sad but at the end of the day, I wouldn’t be the only one. There will be another one after that, another after that. This needs to stop.”
On July 2, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced rule changes for athletes who want to protest during the upcoming Olympic Games. They can “express their views, including on the field of play prior to the start of competition,” as well as “when speaking to the media … during press conferences … interviews … through social media.”
The major caveat is that the protests during competition must be “consistent with the fundamental principles of Olympism; not targeted, directly or indirectly, against people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity; not disruptive; … and not prohibited or otherwise limited by the rules of the relevant national Olympic committee and/or the competition regulations of the relevant international federation.”
What the policies are and how the IOC will punish athletes if their demonstrations are against its rules doesn’t concern Lyles. When he steps onto the track, with millions of people around the world watching, he will show support for Black Americans and the injustices they’ve endured for centuries.
When Lyles runs, people’s heads turn. But he’s more than just a record-setter in the 200 meters. The anime, the music, the artwork, the fashion, the video games, all of it embodies who Noah Lyles is.
He epitomizes a new generation of track athletes, looking to bring younger fans to the sport with their diverse interests.
When Noah Lyles stares into the camera, before and after his races, it won’t be the last time you see and hear of him.