CLERMONT, Fla. — Even with all those Olympic gold medals and all those world records, it took more than Usain Bolt’s dazzling speed to make him an international icon.
It took his personality. The way he turned each race into a theatrical event, preening and posing before settling into the blocks, flashing that megawatt smile as he blazed across the finish line, dancing and doing his signature “To Di World” pose as adoring crowds cheered.
Bolt made running fast look easy. More than that, he made it look fun.
Something else he and Noah Lyles have in common.
If you don’t know Lyles’ name yet, you will soon enough. The 21-year-old is faster than Bolt was at the same age in both the 100 and 200 meters, and his eclectic socks, creative victory celebrations and Renaissance Man interests are sure to make him the breakout star of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“If I can come out here and be that big name that everybody sees, but they see that I’m having fun with it, that it’s a love instead of something that I’m forcing myself to do, I feel it will encourage others to try and go for their dreams,” Lyles told USA TODAY Sports recently. “Because when I was younger, I was scared of growing up. Because I thought I was going to have to get a normal job.
“But look at me now. I get paid to run in a circle,” he said, erupting in a loud laugh. “What’s better than that?”
‘Room to grow’
American track athletes, sprinters in particular, have always followed the same path. Run in college, turn professional after. But Lyles and his younger brother, Josephus, decided early that they were going to be different.
They knew they had talent; both of their parents were sprinters at Seton Hall, and they were running on the high school team in Alexandria, Va., when they were still in junior high. Josephus was part of the U.S. team that won the 4×400 relay at the junior world championships in 2014 while Noah won the 200 meters at the Youth Olympic Games the same year.
Noah also made the Olympic trials in 2016, finishing fourth and missing a spot on the Rio team by .09 seconds.
If they could run that fast, at that young age, why not bypass college and turn professional right away? Which is what they did, giving up their scholarships to Florida and signing with Adidas in July 2016. They were the first male sprinters to go pro out of high school.