TAMPA, Fla. — When Erriyon Knighton, months after his 18th birthday, became the fourth-fastest 200-meter runner in history on April 30, fellow sprinter Michael Cherry tweeted in amazement: “That boy got the ‘Algebra Monday.’
Knighton was still weeks away from graduating from high school when he completed a half lap in 19.49 seconds, lowering his own junior world record once held by Usain Bolt, at the LSU Invitational in Baton Red, Louisiana.
Knighton had turned professional in January 2021, days before his 17th birthday. Months later, he finished fourth in the 200m at the Tokyo Olympics, so his victory in that low-key encounter was not unexpected. It was how quickly Knighton crossed the finish line at such a young age that was surprising.
He is competing in the United States Track and Field Championships this weekend in Eugene, Oregon, as a favorite, and is expected to qualify for the world championships to be held there in July, when he thinks he can win.
Unable to see the scoreboard immediately at Louisiana State, Knighton reacted with little emotion to his win. He knew he had run fast, but little did he know yet that his result was only surpassed by three of the greatest sprinters of all time – Bolt of Jamaica, the three-time Olympic 200 meter champion who holds the record of the senior world of 19.19. seconds; Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, 2012 Olympic silver medalist with a personal best of 19.26; and Michael Johnson of the United States, who won the 1996 Olympics in 19.32.
Sprint improvements most often occur within hundredths of a second, sliced as thinly as carpaccio. But Knighton shaved more than three-tenths of a second off his previous record of 19.84. It might as well have been a minute in the world of elite athletics, especially since it was his first 200m race of the season. Expectations that day were as wispy as the tailwind.
Knighton expressed surprise, saying he didn’t think he would achieve such a time until he was 20 or 21 years old. When his trainer, Mike Holloway, told him he ran 19.49, he replied, “No, I didn’t.”
Why would he think otherwise? No teenager had ever run so fast. Not Bolt, not just anyone.
As Knighton unfolded his 6-foot-3 frame from the starting blocks, he occasionally dragged or dragged his left foot down the track. But he came out clean at the LSU meet. Before he exited the curve, the race was effectively over.
The track seemed to incline, as if inclined, as Knighton came out of the bend, and he seemed to run downhill, landing as elite sprinters do just behind the balls of his feet, his heels seemingly never touching the floor. Head perfectly still, arms swinging but relaxed, a light wind at his back, Knighton moved away from the field with each long stride.
The advantage of being tall, with long legs, allowed Knighton to take fewer strides than shorter sprinters, which delayed his end-of-stroke fatigue and allowed him to maintain greater speed downhill. finishing line. His trainer marveled at the smoothness and elasticity of Knighton’s stride. That is, how agility he absorbed the energy of the landing with a maximum force of about five times his body weight and quickly pushed his body and feet back into the air.
The basic measure of speed is stride length multiplied by stride frequency. Elite sprinters typically hit the track and go again in about nine hundredths of a second.
“It’s almost like he’s a pogo stick,” said Holloway, who is head coach at the University of Florida and also served as head coach of the United States track and field team. at the Tokyo Olympics.
At the Tokyo Games, Knighton, at 17, was the youngest U.S. Olympian on the track since famed miler Jim Ryun in 1964. According to NBC, he became the youngest male track athlete to reach the final of an Olympic race individual in 125 years. If Knighton remains healthy and qualifies for the world championships in July, many would expect him to medal and possibly finish on the podium. When the Paris 2024 Olympics begin, he will still be 20 years old.
People often ask him if he wants to be the next Usain Bolt. The comparison is an honor, Knighton said, but no, he doesn’t want to be the next Bolt. He wants to be the best version of himself.
“I didn’t grow up with his name; I grew up with my name,” Knighton said recently during a leisurely lunch with his other coach, Jonathan Terry, who operates a Tampa track club called My Brother’s Keeper. The conversation went from athletics to fast cars to the challenges of catching catfish.
At 18, Knighton has yet to take a close look under the hood of his in-house engine like he did under the hood of the $80,000 Dodge Hellcat he’d like to buy. He leaves the biomechanics to his trainers. He has higher thoughts. Sometimes in training, Knighton stares into the distance, daydreaming. Terry has to call his name to break the daydream.
“I’m probably thinking about breaking the world record,” Knighton said.
Knighton is self-assured, diligent and fearless, unfazed by fame, his coaches said. But international expectations are a heavy weight to put on the narrow shoulders of any teenage sprinter, no matter how precocious. So Knighton’s camp is trying to make him faster by slowing him down.
They dissuaded him from the Hellcat, with its exorbitant insurance premiums. His training is low volume. He still did relatively little weightlifting to fill out his 164-pound frame. He has only run four races this season. As a precaution, he withdrew from a meeting in New York in early June after feeling a slight pinch in his lower back during practice.
It was okay, Knighton said. He just didn’t want this to get serious.
“If we’re going to have longevity in the sport, we can’t beat him,” Holloway said, noting that the Jamaicans also developed Bolt carefully. “People forget that Bolt was really good at 16 and 17 and when he was 21, 22 he was unbeatable.”
Knighton need look no further than an Olympic peer, Trayvon Bromell, another former Florida high school sprint star, to realize the possibility and fragility of world-class speed.
In 2014, Bromell, from nearby St. Petersburg, became the first junior sprinter to run the 100 in under 10 seconds (9.97), while winning an NCAA title at Baylor University. He also won a bronze medal in the distance at the 2015 track world championships. But Bromell tore his Achilles tendon at the 2016 Rio Olympics and did not reach the 100m final in Tokyo. when he was a favorite for the gold medal.
“It can go wrong in many ways,” said Peter Weyand, a biomechanics expert at Southern Methodist University who studies elite sprinters. “Bolt is the classic story of the ingredients you want to make things right – strong family support, friends, really good and stable management and good coaching.”
If Knighton avoids serious injuries and maintains a strong support structure as his career continues on a normal trajectory, Weyand said, he looks likely to break Bolt’s 200-metre record of 19.19 – once considered untouchable . “I think the bet would be that he could probably do it,” he said. “Shoot, he’s almost half a second faster than Bolt at the same age. It’s crazy. It’s a phenomenon.
Knighton’s track career began in 2019 during his freshman year at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, at the suggestion of an assistant football coach. He continued to play football during his junior season as a wide receiver and a safety who could squat 500 pounds and lift 450. Southeastern Conference powerhouses, including Georgia and Alabama, showed their interest. His career path, however, went from football pitches to the tracks built around them.
As a 16-year-old at the 2020 Junior Olympics, Knighton ran the 100 in 10.29 and the 200 in 20.33 – a national record by age group. In January 2021, a few months before the Tokyo Games, he turned professional, signing a contract with Adidas and hiring three-time British Olympian and 200m British record holder John Regis as one of his agents.
“I was running what the pros were running,” Knighton said. “I thought if I practiced a little more I could be one of them.”
At the Olympic trials last June, he twice broke Bolt’s junior world record in the 200m, posting his career best of 19.84. To watch Knighton run the Olympic 200m final from Tokyo in August, around 500 people gathered at a viewing party at Hillsborough High, cheering and waving flags.
“Students, teachers, cafeteria workers, guards, the place has erupted,” said Eric Brooks, the school’s athletic director.
Knighton finished fourth in 19.93 – a stunning performance for a teenager. When a television camera reached him, he crouched down on the track and smiled, but it was a smile of contemplation of what might have been. His start was missed and he couldn’t match the power of the medalists down the stretch. “I didn’t think I was strong enough,” he said.
Holloway, the head Olympic track coach, spoke to Knighton after the race. The teenager was deflated. He thought he could win. Holloway told him, “I don’t want you to forget how you feel right now; and remember, you never want to feel like this again.
This spring, Knighton improved his personal best 200 to 19.49 and his 100 to 10.04. Terry thinks he can cut his time from 200 to 19.39 this summer and, if he runs a perfect run, can run 19.18 or faster – a world record – in 2024. For that, Knighton will need to refine his start and gaining the strength to stand taller as he runs, lifting his hips to achieve full leg extension.
“He’s like a foal that’s just been born and can barely walk,” Holloway said. “Then they get stronger and become Secretariat.”