EUGENE, Ore. — Noah Lyles roared through an electric and historic night onto the homestretch of the World Championships 200-meter final, the rest of the field vanquished, his demons, his doubters disappearing with each powerful stride, his only competition the clock and a pair of ghosts.
Lyles successfully defended his world title, fulfilling the promise that at times had seemed like a burden or a curse, with an American record-breaking victory that capped an epic night at Hayward Field that exceeded even its own extensive pre-meet hype.
“Today is my day,” Lyles, the 25-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, said after his 19.31-second triumph broke Michael Johnson’s 26-year-old American record and led a Team USA sweep of the medals.
A night for the ages also belonged to Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson.
Jackson, 28, was born in St. Ann, the same parish on Jamaica’s north coast that gave the world reggae legend Bob Marley, and Thursday night she turned the 200 final into her own redemption song.
“I came out and put on the show,” Jackson said.
Jackson, eliminated in the first round of the 200 at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, won the women’s final in equally decisive fashion, finishing in 21.45, the second fastest time in history and the quickest in 34 years. Only the late Florence Griffith Joyner’s 21.34 world record set at the 1988 Olympic Games is faster.
Jackson not only shattered Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands’ meet record (21.63) but finished nearly four-tenths ahead of runner-up and teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the World 100 champion (21.81). Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith claimed the bronze medal in 22.02. Abby Steiner, the U.S. and NCAA champion out of Kentucky, was fifth in 22.26, showing the effects of 50-plus races this season.
Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Smith, the reigning Olympic 100 and 200 champion, was seventh in 22.39.
“The fastest woman alive, the national and championships record,” Jackson said. “I cannot complain.”
On any other night, even at an Olympic Games or World Championships, Jackson’s performance might have been a showstopper. But the night was just getting started.
As soon as Jackson, serenaded by the deafening sounds of Jamaican fans blasting horns that turned Hayward Field into Kingston at rush hour, finished her victory lap, a video clip of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 200 final and protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City was played. Then Smith and Carlos, sitting next to World Athletics president Sebastian Coe, stood and were recognized, a nearly sold-out stadium standing in appreciation, creating the unmistakable feeling that this storied venue was on the brink of witnessing something truly extraordinary.
Across the track, Lyles stood behind his blocks in Lane 6. Lyles’ showdown with 18-year-old Erriyon Knighton had been the most anticipated showdown of not only the World Championships but the season. To some in the sport, it was viewed as the rivalry that could launch American professional track and field to a level of prominence not held since the days of Smith and Carlos, Jim Ryun and Bob Beamon, more than a half-century ago.
Lyles edged Knighton by the slimmest of margins – 19.67 to 19.69 – at the U.S. Championships last month and then poured accelerant on the rivalry when he gestured in Knighton’s direction at the finish.
“Come Eugene, everybody who is going to be watching that race is going to be picking either Noah or Erriyon for different reasons,” Ato Boldon, a former World 200 champion, now an analyst for NBC, said referring to this meet.
But as Lyles waited to be called to the blocks Thursday night, he closed his eyes, bowed his head, brought his hands together in prayer, and pressed his finger tips against his forehead.
It had been a rough year.
Lyles had been billed as the heir apparent to Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, the three-time Olympic 100 and 200 champion, and Johnson since he was a teenager.
Lyles won his first U.S. title at 19 in 2017. A year later he was undefeated in the Diamond League at 20, running 19.69 in four consecutive races. He ran 19.50, the fourth-fastest time in history, in 2019 and later that season captured the World title.
The Olympic favorite leading up to the Tokyo Games, Lyles emerged as the transcendent star U.S. track had been looking for, appearing on the pages of GQ and Vogue and Time, the latter in which he guaranteed, “I’m going to win in Tokyo.”
Instead, Lyles had to settle for the bronze. Afterward, he unburdened himself about his battle with depression, at one point breaking down sobbing.
“Mentally, getting on and off antidepressants was really hard,” Lyle said that night.
“I thought I was changing last year,” he said Thursday night. “It scared me. I was fearful and I wanted to get the spark I had back. I did, I enjoyed and I am still putting pressure on myself. When I start doing that, I have more fun and that’s what I keep reminding myself. ‘There’s no pressure. There’s pure fun out here.’”
Still, he seemed to chafe when asked about Knighton, the latest “next Bolt,” especially after the teenager ran 19.49 in April, the fastest 200 in more than a decade.
Finally, the runners were called to their marks, Knighton inside of Lyles in Lane 3.
Lyles led almost from the gun.
“I felt I got the best start I could possibly ask for,” he said. “The race was basically set up for me. I was given lane six, an outside lane. To be honest, every step was purposeful, going out with intent to win.”
By the time he hit the homestretch he had already opened a decisive gap that only grew as he blazed past Smith and Carlos in the stands, giants watching a young man racing up to join them and Johnson on the mountain top.
Behind him the only real race was for silver, a medal finally claimed by Kenny Bednarek at 19.77, with Knighton edging Liberia’s Joseph Fahnbulleh 19.80 to 19.84 to duplicate the earlier U.S. sweep of the men’s 100. The sweep gave the U.S. 22 medals through seven days.
“I got a medal,” Knighton said. “I can’t complain. I am only 18 and have some time to get in the weight room. I really don’t lift weights like that at all. There’s some stuff I can fix. Noah Lyles told me I will be one of the greatest in the sport. It feels good coming from him.”
Lyles knelt in prayer at the end of a race that had brought him to his knees in more than one way.
“I finally did what I’ve been trying to do for years,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
He would, however, have to wait a few more minutes to learn the American record was only his.
A trackside clock initially flashed Lyles’ time as 19.32, equalling Johnson’s winning time at the 1996 Olympics.
“I was going so fast, I was breaking down at the end, something I never do,” Lyles said. “I was hoping it was going to be a fast time because I felt like it was slow. And then I saw the time pop and I saw that I tied Michael Johnson’s record and I was like ‘really? You’re going to do me like that?’
The clock went blank for a moment then flashed “19.31.”
“And then that number turns from two to a one,” Lyles said, “and my whole world changed.”
And in the chaos, he seemed to grasp not only the moment but the journey, the early comparisons to Bolt and Johnson, the heartbreak of Tokyo.
“When I ran 19.50 I remember saying how the heck did Michael Johnson run 19.30s?” Lyles said. “And then how did they get it to 19.2 and then 19.19? Then I said, ‘let’s not worry about it. When the time comes.’ And the time finally came. I just knew I could reach for (those times).
“I was true in form for a world record, but I am Ok with the American record.”
Nearly an hour after the race, Lyles was celebrating with a raucous group of fans pressed up against the Hayward Field track.
The crowd grew even louder as a man walked out onto the track and approached Lyles, And then Michael Johnson congratulated and then raised Lyles’ hand into the night, once again the champion of the world.