Noah Lyles is the best in the world again.
Lyles, the reigning 200-meter world champion who only managed a bronze medal at last year’s Olympics, won a second consecutive world title Thursday night in Eugene, Ore. Lyles won with a time of 19.31, the third-fastest time ever, holding off a stacked field that included the sport’s rising star, Erriyon Knighton, who is just 18 years old and probably won’t be held off for long. Lyles put a significant gap between him and the talented field, winning by almost a half second, and he said he didn’t realize that Knighton finished third, and not second, until they walked up to the podium.
“That’s how big the gap was,” Lyles said with a smile.
For weeks, Lyles had said he welcomed the push from Knighton, saying he had been waiting for it for a while now. Knighton pushed, but ultimately could not manage more than that. Knighton, who stumbled finished third in 19.80 seconds, three-hundredths behind Kenny Bednarek to complete an American sweep.
Lyles, who is known to be a slow starter, blasted around the turn. He said the quick turn came because Knighton and Bednarek “put the fear of god in him.”
“That was definitely start of my life,” Lyles said.
The only question coming down the stretch seemed to be whether he might be able to top Usain Bolt’s world record. He missed that but broke Michael Johnson’s American record by one-hundredth of a second.
Lyles spread his hands wide as he crossed the finish line then turned to the scoreboard to see his time. At first, it said he tied Johnson’s record. He knelt on the track and placed his hands in a prayer position. When his eyes were closed and his back was turned, the scoreboard changed to 19.31. When Lyles saw the correct time, he jumped in the air and ripped off his singlet.
“I finally got to do what I dreamed about for years,” he said.
The showdown between Lyles and Knighton in the 200 was among the most anticipated of the world championships. It pitted the present of American sprinting against its future, though Knighton had been making a very strong case this spring that his time is now.
For the better part of a year, Knighton had been inching closer to Lyles in their head-to-head matchups.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials last year, 0.10 seconds separated Lyles and Knighton. Lyles was first, Knighton was third.
At the Tokyo Games a month later, Knighton slipped 0.19 seconds behind. He finished fourth, one place behind Lyles.
Last month, at the U.S. national championship meet, Knighton finished just 0.02 seconds behind Lyles. They were first and second.
But that race happened a month after Knighton ran the 200 in 19.49 seconds at an invitational meet at L.S.U. to break the under-20 world record. Lyles was not in that race.
“He backed up his talk. Lyles got out and he didn’t look back,” Jonathan Terry, one of Knighton’s coaches said in a phone interview from Tampa, Fla. “I’m happy my guy made the podium.”
Lyles and Knighton are friendly. Both are based in Florida. At 25, Lyles is seven years older, but when he is in good spirits, which he certainly has been lately, he goofs off and mugs for the camera on the track. He wears his emotions on his bib, and has shared his story about his battles with mental health.
Knighton, on the other hand, is all business, on the track and off. He is a man of few words. He speaks softly and lets his running do the talking, expressing himself through his speed and his speed alone. For Knighton, the track is not a place for games. It is a place for work. He has not been running at the elite level long enough to understand the cruel roller coaster that his pursuit entails. There have been no downs, only ups.
“It feels good, it’s my first medal,” Knighton said. He was reserved when talking with the reporters after the race, not showing the excitement that some would expect from a person who just became the youngest medalist in world championship history. “I just got to get time to think about what I just did,” he said.
Lyles, who was a favorite to win the gold medal in the 200 at the Tokyo Olympics, struggled last year and during the pandemic. Earlier this week, he chalked up his resurgence to his new understanding that he runs because he is a performer who thrives off a crowd, something he did not get a chance to do for nearly two years.
“I got a crowd,” he yelled on the track after it was over.
That crowd was there for him last night, and they were also there for Knighton. With Bednarek, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, also in the field, there was talk of another American sweep, just like the one in the 100 on Saturday night.
And just like last weekend, the Americans lived up to the hype.
Jeré Longman and Kris Rhim contributed reporting.