With the Tokyo Olympics just one year away, two Team USA track stars discuss the paths that brought them to this point and the short sprints to go.
A hush fell over the 60,000 spectators in Rio’s Estádio Olímpico. American Courtney Okolo shuffled into the starting blocks.
“That was my first big meet,” recalls Okolo, 25. “I used to do college meets. That was different.”
Prior to those women’s 400-meter relay finals in 2016, Okolo’s international competitive experience amounted to an under-20 Pan-American tournament during college and a North American meet the year before Rio. By comparison, her relay teammates had already won a combined 20 world championships and five Olympic golds.
In the next lane, the 2015 world champion Jamaican team was poised to repeat.
“I was nervous, definitely,” Okolo says of the silence before the starter’s gun. “I kind of felt like the freshman on the team, but I was pretty confident in my fitness and my training.”
For world-class sprinters, it’s not enough to be fast. Time and again, poor reactions to the starter’s gun have sunk Olympic hopes.
As British Olympian Linford Christie put it: you have to go on the B of the bang.
Bang went the gun, and off went Okolo. The staggered start made it impossible to tell whether she held a lead on her Jamaican rival after the first turn. It made no difference to Okolo. No one ever won a race by rubbernecking.
“I’m always so focused on just the track and my lane,” she says.
Okolo ran a 50-second leg and beat her competitors to the split. She passed the baton cleanly and her teammate was off with a cushion that would grow. Two more passes and plenty of adrenaline later, Okolo watched anchor Allyson Felix sprint across the finish line.
It took more than two decades of training and less than a minute on the Estádio Olímpico’s track, but it was enough. Okolo was a gold medalist.
“It was a surreal experience,” she says.
Nearly three years removed from that August evening, Okolo is again one of hundreds of athletes dreaming of a shot at Olympic glory, this time in Tokyo. First, a full season of domestic and international events separate Team USA’s hopefuls from the Olympic trials in June 2020.
Until then, practices continue and world championships await. But on and off the track, in the United States and here in Tokyo, Olympic preparations are well underway.
Ahead of its role as USA House, Team USA’s hospitality hub for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Club has recently opened its doors to members of the US track and field, gymnastics and softball squads. This month will see athletes from the archery (July 13) and beach volleyball (July 22) teams converge on the Winter Garden for meet and greets with Members.
Olympic gold requires preternatural dedication, but it’s not all work and no play. When Okolo and her track teammates visited the Club in May as part of a weeklong buildup to a world relay championship in Yokohama, they managed to find time to play tourist.
“We go to different cities, but all we ever see is the track,” Okolo says. “I was really happy we had time to go around [Tokyo]. It reminded me of Times Square.”
“I have been dreaming about going to Japan for years,” says teammate Noah Lyles, who is known to pump himself up before meets by tweeting memes from anime. “I was very excited to go. I was confused why there were no trash cans, but that’s a small price to pay.”
If you haven’t heard of Lyles yet, you will soon.
At the same 2016 trials where Okolo punched her ticket for Rio, the 18-year-old Lyles, who turns 22 this month, competed in the 200 meters. The high school senior missed qualifying by just nine hundredths of a second, but his time of 20.09 seconds broke the under-18 national record that had stood for 31 years.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” says Lyles. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but it did kind of hurt not to make the team.”
Now four years older, stronger and more experienced, Lyles has made the most of his turn to professional sprinting. He is the youngest US champion in the 100 meters since 1984 and is the current, indoor, 300-meter world-record holder. It’s all the more impressive to track and field experts who believe Lyles has yet to reach his potential in his best event: the 200-meter dash.
“Lyles is a much stronger finisher than a starter,” says Nick Zaccardi, the Olympics editor for NBC Sports. “He is already an elite 100 runner. It just doesn’t look that way to some who put more emphasis on his slow start compared to the rest of the field than his finish, which is undoubtedly [among the] best in the world.”
Zaccardi points to Lyles’ 100-meter performance in Shanghai in May as an example of the sprinter’s promise. After trailing in fifth place for the first 70 meters, Lyles turned the afterburners on. Down the final stretch, Lyles blew past three runners before a photo finish proved he edged out the leader, too.
That late-race power draws inevitable comparisons to the greatest finisher in modern sprinting history: retired Jamaican track legend Usain Bolt.
The evidence is compelling. At 20 years old, Lyles’ best 200 time stood at 19.90 seconds, just two hundredths of a second slower than Bolt’s mark at that age. One year later, Lyles ran the 100 in 9.88 seconds, five hundredths faster than a 21-year-old Bolt.
“The more people put my name next to [Bolt’s], the more people pay attention,” Lyles says. “But it’s also the moment that they realize I’m different. I’m not Usain Bolt. I’m only Noah Lyles.”
Both Lyles and Okolo have a full slate of domestic and international competitions over the next year, culminating with the all-important US Olympic trials in Oregon next June. To Okolo, the American talent pool is so strong that the trials are daunting, regardless of your yearly schedule.
“They say our trials are more difficult than the actual Olympics,” Okolo says. “I think everything is kind of a stepping stone toward [Oregon].”
And for Lyles, who came up short in 2016 by less than the blink of an eye?
“I only see myself winning at the next Olympic trials,” he predicts, “and that’s how I’m going to keep it.”
For all Lyles’ bravado and Okolo’s experience, Tokyo 2020 is still 12 months away. The road to Olympic gold remains a marathon and not a sprint.
Until the lights come up on the track of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
Until the starter’s gun fires.
Words: Owen Ziegler
Countdown to Tokyo 2020
July 26 | 6–9pm