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TOKYO — In the mix zone under the stands at Tokyo Olympic Stadium, the air thick with humidity, Noah Lyles was draped in an American flag.
He'd won an Olympic medal in the 200 meters, just not the one he — or really, most everyone that pays attention to the global track and field scene — expected.
Initially, Lyles was a bit aloof, understandable because of both his disappointment at winning bronze and because by the time he got in front of the group of American print and online reporters, he'd already done several interviews for various television broadcasters.
A bronze was boring, but still a great achievement. He called it his hardest year mentally and physically. He was happy with the way he'd started and run the curve. He had no interest in wondering what color his medal might have been had the COVID-19 pandemic not delayed the Games by a year.
But after a few minutes, his mood shifted. He got a little philosophical, saying perhaps God wants him to realize that he can still impact people whether he wins the Olympics or not. Maybe gold medalist Andre DeGrasse needed the light right now, and it's selfish to think it was all about him.
He brought up his mental and physical health again, saying he had gone on and off antidepressants.
And then any semblance of a wall that remained was gone.
"I remember right before I came over to Tokyo, I like broke down crying, just a lot of different things," he said. "Me and my girlfriend were talking about … we were talking about a lot of things. We were talking about how hard it was to get through this year, talking about me and my brother. You know, I love my brother and it's been really hard for him wanting to train as far as he has and … "
Lyles tried to fight back the tears, apologized. His younger brother, Josephus, is also a sprinter who switched this year from specializing in the 400 meters down to the 200. He did not qualify for Tokyo.
"I thank God every day that I'm able to come out here because at the same time I feel like this wasn't even my dream. In 2012, my brother had the dream that he was gonna come to the Olympics and I really just tagged along for the ride," Lyles said, his chest heaving. "And sometimes I think to myself, you know, this should be him.
"You know, I'd be OK not being here, you know, because I feel like I have a lot of talents and I feel I can go in different directions. And he's talented, but at the same time, this wasn't even my dream. I just really tagged along because I love my brother, and I wanted to do this together. And he should be here right now."
He tried to catch his breath. He apologized again, as if that was necessary.
It was another reminder, a beautifully human reminder that these men and women are full human beings, with lives away from the track or the gym or the rink that are just as complicated as ours are, the highs and the lows and the struggles and the joys. They're all there.
The USA Track & Field media coordinator with Lyles tried to offer him an out and pull him away. Lyles had bared his soul, he didn't have to talk anymore.
But he didn't want to leave. He wanted to finish, and composed himself.
He was asked if he'd share more about his mental health journey.
"It's been very long. It started when I was really young. If I told the whole story, we'd be here for an hour," Lyles said. "Short version is my mom deals heavy with anxiety and depression, and from a young age she kind of picked up on cues on me, knowing that that could be something in the future, so just constantly her keeping me in therapy, even from a young age."
"But going through life, it was very hard for me to figure out what I wanted to be, I knew I didn't want to go the educational route because standard school wasn't for me. That hold and lock that school had on me was very tough," Lyles continued. "And I'd say that was my first grips with depression, and then coming out [of a depression] when I was able to you know go and do track. I felt that everything had been lifting, and I'd be able to actually live my life and I'm so thankful for all the avenues that I've been able to go down. I've learned that I'm into fashion, I'm able to continue my art, I've been getting into music, and I've been in almost every magazine that I've wanted to and ... shoot, I'm going to the Met Gala."
Lyles has always been pretty transparent with social media followers about taking antidepressants and his mental health. He doesn't know how many people he has impacted, but he has certainly gotten messages from many saying he has. He knows that there's fear in admitting you need help. He knows acknowledging it is a significant first step.
"I've always said that the day I'm not having fun with the sport, I'm gonna leave it, and for a little bit I wasn't having fun this year, and I didn't want to leave, I had to make a decision. I was like, 'alright, I got to get better. I can't let this control me,'" he said. "And I was using those outlets of music, and track and everything else, to really help me get through those tough moments now and saying, even if this doesn't go right in track, I still have a life outside of it.
"I have places that I can go. I'm not defined by being an Olympic bronze medalist, or a gold medal World champion, or the high schooler that went pro. That's not who I am. I'm Noah Lyles. I'm not Usain Bolt's successor, not Andre DeGrasse's successor. I'm me, and that's who I'll always be."
There has been so much discussion, thankfully, from athletes at these Games sharing their paths. Sharing their struggles. Lyles believes it's long overdue. Telling his story to media members staring intently at him from a socially distanced six feet away means they share it with their audiences. One more person might be helped.
"Having a place where you can actually be OK with letting go of your fears and saying, 'I am scared,' because I've definitely said that quite a few times this year," he said. "It's OK, you know?
"I want other people to know that there's a better way. I don't want anybody to go out there and think, 'well, so-and-so isn't doing it. Well so-and-so is doing it, and they want you to do it too because they don't want anybody to have to go through what I've gone through.'"
Noah Lyles, bronze medal winner, had just impacted untold people without needing to win gold.
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