Noah Lyles passes Erriyon Knighton in US Championships


Noah Lyles passes Erriyon Knighton in US Championships

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Prior to Sunday afternoon, Noah Lyles had not settled next to a sprinter with a personal best 200 meters faster than him since his early days at TC Williams High in Alexandria. Immediately to his left on the starting line at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships was Erriyon Knighton, the 18-year-old who shattered Usain Bolt’s junior records and overtook Lyles earlier this year to become the fourth-fastest man of all-time at 200 yards.

As he rounded the corner, Lyles could see Knighton in front of him. The Hayward Field crowd in Eugene, Ore., may have sensed a lasting change in events, but not Lyles. He believed – he knew it – he wouldn’t let Knighton lose his status as America’s 200-meter king, at least not on Sunday. Lyles thought to himself, “I’ll catch him.”

The US Championships provided an eventful preview of next month’s World Championships, also in Eugene – the first to be held on American soil. Sydney McLaughlin continued to push into the 400 hurdles. Athing Mu survived a rare challenge and displayed her usual 800m brilliance. Fred Kerley cemented his world-class status in the short sprints. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Devon Allen squeaked into the world championship. Sha’Carri Richardson was stunned when she failed to qualify for the 100 or 200 world championships.

Perhaps the most electrifying moment was Lyle’s refusal to let Knighton usurp his crown. Knighton seemed poised to make the race a torch relay. With his incredible top speed, bravery and words, Lyles turned it into a rivalry.

Lyles chased, caught and passed Knighton to win his third straight US championship in the 200, beating Knighton’s 19.69 seconds. At the finish line, Lyles pointed over Knighton’s face at the clock, which showed his time of 7:67 p.m., and grinned as he tore the tape. Not only did he keep his title. He spiced up football.

Lyles, 24, has lost just two 200cc finals as a pro, a Diamond League race against Michael Norman and the Tokyo Olympics final where he took bronze. Many believed Knighton would make it three Sundays. He shattered Bolt’s U20 record in the 200s. During a small meet at LSU this spring, Knighton clocked a staggering 19.49 seconds, a time beaten by only three men — and 0.01 seconds better than Lyles’ best time.

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Lyles and Knighton race for Adidas and Lyles has been quick to complement and support his young rival. But Lyles’ charismatic nature may hide his competitiveness. He saw Knighton coming and didn’t blink.

“When it’s time to line up, I’ll have it,” Lyles said at a meeting in New York two weeks ago. “I know automatically. I will always be ready.”

In the first 100 yards, Lyles trailed half the field – including his brother Josephus, who posted a career-best fifth-place finish in 19.93. But he realized he had conserved more than his competitors. He didn’t panic. Even if he took one too long stride around the corner, he would recover with the next stride.

“It got to the point where I knew I was going to overtake him,” Lyles said. “I knew the race was over.”

Lyles charged past the pack, leveled with Knighton in the final 30 yards and passed him in the last 10 – so confident in his victory that he glanced at Knighton and checked his watch as he crossed the finish line.

“I’m pointing out all the people who have doubted me all year,” Lyles later said. “Anyone who keeps saying, ‘He’s out of the picture.’ Even NBC doesn’t want to talk about me anymore. That’s cool. I’ll let you know. I’ll keep you in check every time.”

As he crossed it, Lyles found a camera and yelled, “Hurry up!” as he held up his watch. Lyles lined up for an interview with NBC on the track alongside Knighton and third-place finisher Kerley, who qualified for the 200 two days after running the world’s fastest 100 this year.

“I’ll do what it takes to win,” Lyles said. “Erriyon overpowered me on the turn. I’m not worried about that. I saw that it had reached its top speed and I said, ‘Mine is faster.’ I said, ‘I’ll catch him. It’ll just take all the rest of the 100. That’s what I did.”

The interviewer turned to Knighton and asked about his expectations for the World Cup.

“Just come back and win,” he said. “The work is not finished yet. It’s never finished.”

Knighton stomped off and Lyles shouted in his direction, “Never done!”

“He just came and got me,” Knighton later said. “He beat me in that race. That’s it.”

McLaughlin, 22, continued arranging what was possible while clearing 10 hurdles in one lap around the track. On Saturday night, she broke her world record for the second time since she set it at the US Trials last summer. That night, with record holder Dalilah Muhammad running in the lane next to her, McLaughlin lowered her to 51.90 seconds. At the Olympics, McLaughlin broke her record in 51.46.

In the final on Saturday she increased it to 51.41. What stood out wasn’t her speed, at least no more than usual, but the staggering lack of effort McLaughlin required. McLaughlin was an acre ahead of her competitors and Muhammad bid farewell to the world championships. McLaughlin drove to the finish line and almost accidentally broke her record.

“I knew it would be quick,” she says. “I’ve been looking at the time and I’ve just been very happy that I’ve been able to slowly advance into lower and lower times. There are still things I can work on. I think there’s still a little more in the tank. Hopefully we can just empty it completely when the time comes.”

The only reason McLaughlin can’t be considered the hands-down most dominant woman in the United States is Mu, also a two-time gold medalist from Tokyo. She repeated herself as the US 800-meter champion in an atypical way: it seemed like she had to try.

Mu could be the best runner in the world, at any distance. She usually destroys the field. On the home straight on Sunday, Ajee Wilson pushed her – and even overtook her by about 30 meters. Mu receives few challenges, but she has proven that she can withstand them. She took back the lead, edging out Wilson by 1:57.16 to 1:57.23.

“I’m glad I fought,” Mu said. “I’m glad I still had my legs to come back and run.”

A close decision for Mu counts as a surprise but paled in the face of the championship shock. Three days after failing to escape the 100cc preliminary, Richardson finished a 200cc semifinal run in 22.47 seconds and did not advance to the final. A year after she missed the Olympics after testing positive for marijuana at the US Trials, Richardson will not compete in the Worlds for the bewildering reason she just wasn’t fast enough.

Two weeks ago, Richardson won the NYC Grand Prix in the 200 meters in 22 seconds and ran the 100 in 10.85, both feats that would have cost her worlds.

It’s hard to know what went wrong. Richardson only approached reporters in Eugene to chastise them and did not answer questions or explain their performance.

“When you do interviews, you should respect the athletes more,” she said. “…athletes deserve a lot more respect than if you just come and throw cameras in their faces. Understand how an athlete works and then ask your questions.”

Her absence paved the way for Kentucky’s Abby Steiner to establish herself as a potential superstar. Steiner won the 200 in 21.77 seconds, 0.03 faster than the NCAA record she set to win the collegiate title this month. “After college, a lot of people put boundaries on you, want to say you’re burned out,” Steiner said.

Gabby Thomas, the reigning US 200m champion and Olympic bronze medalist, finished eighth and tearfully revealed to reporters that she suffered a grade 2 thigh tear two weeks ago. “I had worked so hard to be here and everything was captured in a second,” Thomas said. “I did my best.”

The final day approached the 110 hurdles where Allen expected to challenge the world record. Two weeks ago in New York, Allen ran 12.84 seconds, the third fastest time ever and 0.04 seconds off the record. Allen, a two-time Olympian and former Oregon wide receiver, sweetens the deal for television executives who signed with the Eagles after impressing them at the Ducks’ Pro Day.

Daniel Roberts didn’t care. He beat Allen and NCAA Champion Trey Cunningham in 13.03 seconds. Allen finished a close third in 13.09, which sent him to the World Championships.

Nobody made the team more dramatic than Texas A&M’s Brandon Miller in the 800 meters. Emerging behind Champion Bryce Hoppel at the finish line was Miller to defeat two-time Olympian Clayton Murphy for third and final place on the World Championship team. “I just wanted to do it for everyone who believes in me,” Miller said in an NBC interview. “I just wanted it so bad.”

Miller will be promoted to the Worlds next month where Lyles and Knighton will be the headliners. Knighton’s future will be enticing to a global audience. But he still hasn’t beaten Lyles in a final, and Lyles plans to keep it that way. He was asked on Sunday what he expects in July.

“Victory,” he said, smiling. “What else?”

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