10 to watch: After hardest year of his career, Noah Lyles is trying to have fun again

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BOSTON — Noah Lyles was, for so long, the embodiment of joy – a dancing, flexing, grinning, preening, enigmatic sprinting superstar. He raced in bright-colored socks featuring Sonic the Hedgehog, or characters from his favorite anime. At the 2019 world championships, he dyed his hair silver, as an homage to Goku from Dragonball-Z.

But as 2020 turned to 2021, something was amiss. Lyles was conspicuously reserved, not as demonstrative before races nor dominant during them. The track world noticed.

"I mean, shoot, he sent out a press release saying he’s not wearing socks anymore," NBC analyst Ato Boldon said in June. "That used to be his whole deal!"

Lyles cited the fit of his new racing spikes as the reason for that particular change. Yet it was indicative of a broader shift happening behind the scenes – both in how Lyles viewed track and field, and his role within it.

Was he still having fun, a reporter asked in late May – or at least as much fun as when he first turned pro?

"I truly think I’m in a transitional phase," Lyles told USA TODAY Sports. "I believe the first three years were the most fun I’ve ever had, as a pro track and field athlete. And now that I’ve gained a huge following, I feel that I’m turning my gaze onto..."

He paused.

"The reason that I’m doing this might not be purely for fun," he said.

*****

Lyles arrives at the Tokyo Olympics as one of the stars of Team USA, favored to win gold in the 200-meter dash – his signature event – and destined to become a household name. He's been the one of the key faces on NBC promos, alongside Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. And he has a lengthy list of top sponsors, including Visa and Coca-Cola.

Yet, for most of his career, he has been trying to prove himself – first in high school, at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Virginia, and then as a 19-year-old pro, trying to keep up with the vets.

In 2016, Lyles missed out on the 2016 Olympic team by nine-hundredths of a second. He and his brother, Josephus, signed deals with adidas the next month.

A pair of national titles followed in 2017 and 2018, one indoor and one outdoor, and then the big one – a world championship – in Doha, Qatar, in 2019. Lyles ran the fastest time in the world in the 200 that year, and the second-fastest time ever by an American, behind only Michael Johnson.

"I think he understands what it takes for him to be his best, and that's really important," Johnson told USA TODAY Sports earlier this year. "That's something that, from a maturity standpoint, it takes a lot of athletes quite a while to figure out – exactly what it takes to realize their potential."

However, winning that individual world championship – and a second gold, as the anchor of the 4x100 relay team – is when things started to change for Lyles, when his platform started to balloon and the pressure started to mount.

"It’s a little different position when you’re climbing to the top," said his coach, Lance Brauman. "Then once you’re there, you’re trying to stay there, it puts a little bit more stress and strain on you."

Lyles pointed out that, after winning the world title, he was at the pinnacle of the sport but didn't really get a chance to relish his place there. The COVID-19 pandemic hit, the competition schedule stopped and the Olympics were postponed to 2021. Everybody went back to zero.

"I didn’t have that year in 2020 where I got to live that year at the top and be comfortable with it," Lyles said.

*****

Lyles, now 24, described the past year as probably his most difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic brought an extra level of anxiety, given the severe asthma he had as a kid. At the same time, he also had to reconcile with the killing of George Floyd – and the nationwide social-justice movement that followed. He said he started taking medication for depression and anxiety.

U.S. Olympian Noah Lyles
U.S. Olympian Noah Lyles

Lyles said the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, in particular, prompted him to reexamine his role and purpose as an athlete. Did he have a responsibility to use his platform to address racial injustice? And, if so, how? When?

Lyles, who is also a musician, turned some of his feelings into verses on a song called "A Black Life." Then, in August, he raised a black-gloved fist at a race in Monaco, an homage to John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

"There has been a huge shift in the way that I think about how I decide when to speak," Lyles said. "Because I know when I speak, people listen – as opposed to when I first started, and a few people listened. Or when I was a middle-schooler, and everybody just only saw my talent and what it could be.

"Originally, I didn’t do this for that. I just came out here to run and have fun. But now that I have acquired this influence, I have to say ‘OK, I need to be cautious with this influence.' "

Naturally, this has led to questions about whether Lyles will protest during the Olympics. "Everybody asks me that," he said. He answered by recalling a conversation he had with his brother, about NBA superstar LeBron James. Josephus Lyles noted that James doesn't have to make a gesture to get his message across. He doesn't have to kneel before every game to be an activist.

"I was watching a Jay-Z interview, and he was talking about mental health and Black Lives Matter and all that stuff," Lyles later added. "And he was saying that as a Black, African American man, it is our job to push the agenda forward – to get the ball rolling, for the conversations to be had.

"All I did in 2020 was think 'how can I get more information out there, so that people can understand where we’re coming from?' ... Now that I feel like I have this platform, I’m like, 'OK, I’m not just doing this for me now. I’m doing it for many.' "

*****

The one-year Olympic delay also brought pressure for Lyles. And lots of it. It meant another year of sponsorship commitments and hype, of media interviews and headlines comparing him to Usain Bolt.

Of course, there was also the pressure that Lyles put on himself. He plastered sticky notes all over his house about his stated goal, of winning three gold medals in Tokyo. It was the screensaver on his phone.

"When you’ve been waiting for so long and you want something to happen, it’s almost like a little bit of a pressure. It’s like ‘oh shoot, what if it doesn’t happen?’ And then that’s when doubt creeps in," Lyles said in late May. "But being an athlete is knowing how to handle that doubt, and being able to rewrite your mind and your thought process and saying 'it’s OK.' Just going out there and being yourself and giving your all is really what it’s all about."

That's been the primary challenge for Lyles this year, as he's built up to Tokyo. Brauman said he's had "a couple slight setbacks" in training. Lyles said one of them was the absence of his regular massage therapist, which left his body feeling tight and out of sorts for several months.

"But for the past two months, it’s been really good," Brauman said in early July. "He’s starting to turn back into the guy that he normally is."

Brauman said one of the goals now is to get Lyles back to having fun again – to get to a place where he can understand the scope of his platform without feeling its weight. Lyles said his mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, has advised him to "take dark thoughts captive" ahead of races and let only positive ones remain.

The U.S. Olympic trials last month served as a first major test. Lyles failed to make the 100-meter team, which had been one of the goals on his sticky notes. Then he finished second in his 200-meter heats, to a 17-year-old named Erriyon Knighton.

Before the final, Lyles recalled feeling peaceful, smooth – a different mindset than what he's had before. He won the race with a world-leading time of 19.74.

Afterward, Lyles described the win as both a joy and a relief. In some ways, he felt like the old version of himself, from 2019. In other ways, he felt completely new. But the most telling words came toward the end of his news conference, four words that could prove to be an important indication of what the world might see from him in Tokyo.

"It was fun again," Lyles said.

Contributing: Emily Adams

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Olympic sprinter Noah Lyles tries to have fun again