Olympian Michael Norman puts adversity behind him as he heads to Tokyo
The 400-meter champion will perform in his mother’s native land
Michael Norman knew he didn’t run his best race.
It’s Day 1 of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Norman, one of the favorites to qualify for the Olympic team, began his trials running in the 400 meters.
Expectations are high. Norman won the 400 in Doha, Qatar, at the Diamond League meet in May, clocking a seasonal-best 44.27 seconds.
As Norman started his first heat, he ran quickly out of the gate. But as the race wore on, Norman slowed down, not overexerting himself. Georgia’s Elija Godwin won the heat, finishing several strides ahead of Norman, who placed second.
His time of 45.18 seconds was a far cry from his race in Doha. Despite Norman advancing to the semifinals, his run didn’t match his world-class expectations. Norman knew an earful awaited him from his coach, Quincy Watts.
“I think it was just first-round jitters,” Norman said after his opening race at trials. “There was a certain race plan. I knew exactly what to do. I feel like I let him down.”
In his semifinal heat, Norman separated from the pack in the final 100 meters, something Watts wanted him to improve on from his first race.
Starting in lane 7 for the finals, Norman didn’t disappoint. Unlike in the first race, Norman increased his speed on the far turn. Heading into the home stretch, Norman separated from fellow athlete Michael Cherry to win the 400 meters, posting a season-best 44.07 time, punching his ticket to his first Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“It was all about execution,” Norman said after his race. “There was no tomorrow. Today was the day to put it together.”
For Norman, anything short of winning is viewed as unsatisfactory. He is the ultimate competitor, and thrives on participating in big races on the track.
Promise from an early age
Watts recalls being at the CIF California State high school track meet in 2014. While he was there to watch someone else, a man came up to him, pointing him in a different direction.
“There’s a young man in the 10th grade you should keep an eye on,” Watts remembered.
The 10th grader was Norman. He finished second in the 400 that day, 30 meters behind the eventual winner in the last 100. He wasn’t the fastest and he wasn’t the best runner during the meet. Watts saw the raw talent in Norman, citing the way he ran the race against 11th and 12th graders.
“The combination of speed and stamina, I knew he would be one of the great California athletes,” Watts said.
One year later, at the same meet, Norman ran 45.19 seconds in the 400 meters, putting him sixth all time among U.S. high school athletes in that category. A day later, he clocked a 20.30 in the 200 meters. The 2015 season put Norman on the map as one of California’s top high school track athletes, propelling him to the 2016 U.S. Olympic trials.
For Watts, it signaled the youngster’s hunger to compete.
“Whether he’s in front or behind, he always goes for the win,” Watts said. “That’s a sign of someone who loves to compete.”
Norman failed to make the Olympic team in 2016. Yet, he gained national recognition for beating five-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin in the semifinal heat of the 200 meters. Norman internalized the disappointment and turned it into motivation to get on the Olympic team in Tokyo.
It started with committing to the USC Trojans track team, a program boasting 26 NCAA titles in its history. Caryl Smith Gilbert, USC’s director of track and field, also watched Norman at the CIF meet. She recalls his home visit, which involved one major request.
“He asked me whether he can have breakfast burritos in the morning before he runs,” Gilbert said. “He was coachable and easy to get along with. He just has a great personality.”
Norman ate all the breakfast burritos he wanted. While on the track, he brought a work ethic and relentless desire for perfection every day at USC.
“Michael was an extremely hard worker, which was recognized by every member of the team,” said former USC track member Rachel Glynn. “He is a superdedicated, focused and hardworking athlete.”
“He doesn’t take off,” Gilbert said. “We needed to manage how much he does, how fast he goes because Mike will give you everything he has every time.”
Norman never had problems with training and confidence. However, his freshman year, the teenager underachieved, finishing fourth in the 400 meters at the NCAA Division I championships. According to Gilbert, Norman came back stronger his sophomore year, fixing his shoes to improve speed.
During the 2018 season, Norman won the NCAA indoor 400 meters and 4×400 meter relay. He followed it up at the NCAA outdoor championships, setting a college record in the 400 with a time of 43.61. Watts points to these two championships as the turning point in Norman’s track career.
“In that particular relay, he began to open up his hips,” Watts said. “He went to another level where nobody was able to beat him.
“In Oregon, it was rainy. After coming out of the gym and onto the track, Mike would always look up at the flag. I said, ‘There’s no wind.’ He told me, ‘All right, I’m going to go out and break it.’ He then goes out there and breaks the NCAA record. Those are two moments in my coaching experience with Michael where I realized he wasn’t the same guy anymore.”
Focus, discipline and Toyko
Injuries are a part of sports, including track and field. For Norman, an unspecified injury came at the most inopportune time, during the 2019 world championships. The favorite to win the 400, Norman failed to qualify for the semifinals.
Then, 2020 forced the cancellation of all track events due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the pandemic restrictions burdened athletes, Norman never wavered. He remained steadfast in his training regimen, wanting to get back to peak form.
“The athletes who rebound from injuries are the ones who do not cut corners,” Watts said. “Michael is like a well-tuned Ferrari. He’s going to focus on what he needs to do to be great, what he needs to do to heal up. He is really about self-discipline.”
The success in Doha at Diamond League demonstrated Norman’s readiness for trials. After his performance in Eugene, he solidified himself as one of the top runners in the world.
As he waved to the Hayward Field crowd, euphoric after qualifying for his first Olympics, Norman went into the stands, hugging his parents, Michael Sr. and Nobue. Nobue Norman is from a city in Japan that is very close to where the Olympics will take place.
“I run for my supporters, my family, my coaches,” Norman said. “Being able to run in my mom’s home country, it brings my family together and it makes competing worth it.”
On Norman’s Instagram, one word jumps off the page in his bio.
Staying patient paid off for Norman, who will now zoom to Tokyo, looking to showcase his competitiveness on the world stage once again.