With a full stadium, a Star Sprinter is ready to perform.

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Noah Lyles danced on the red track at Hayward Field. He clapped and mugged for selfies with fans and smiled like he had won another world championship.

He had not. He had won a preliminary round on Monday in the 200 meters, his flagship event. It was yet another race and three nights away from a showdown with budding rival Erriyon Knighton, the teenage athletics prodigy that Lyles, who turned 25 on Monday, had been not so long ago. long time.

More importantly, Lyles appeared light years away from that muggy, hot night in Tokyo last year, when he collapsed after winning bronze in the 200m, an event most swear by. expected him to win.

Lyles wasn’t dancing that night, and there were no fans in the stadium to wave to him, let alone share a photo with him. That night he was part of a series of top athletes at the Games to tell the world about a battle with mental health, taking and quitting antidepressants and trying not to let it win. or lose define it. .

“A lot of work, a lot of therapy,” Lyles said Monday night of how he got to such a different place, despite continued pressure to reestablish his supremacy.

This development would have been difficult to predict a year ago, perhaps even as difficult as it might have been to imagine how much more acceptable it would be for elite athletes to share their struggles with health. mental almost the same way they talk about the knee. muscle aches and pains. But that’s what happened for both Lyles and the sport in general.

Over the past year, Lane Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles; Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world; and Naomi Osaka, one of tennis’ top players, all opened up about their mental health battles and took time off from their activities.

On Monday, Lyles described a series of epiphanies, as well as the end of a not-so-great relationship, which combined to have dramatic and positive effects on his mental state, allowing him to better understand why he devoted such great part of his life. trying to run halfway around a track faster than anyone else.

One of those accomplishments came to him last winter at the Millrose Games, an indoor winter competition in New York. Lyles had committed to running in the 60s, but he didn’t know why. He does not excel in the test and was surrounded by champions who do.

“How could I participate in this race? he recalled.

Then he saw a social media post about running as some kind of drama with Lyles as one of his stars of Michael Johnson, the four-time Olympic gold medalist who ran in gold spikes.

“He said people don’t go to races to watch people run, they go because they like to watch you run,” Lyles said. “It spoke to me.”

The second epiphany came during a therapy session, when he recounted how frustrated he had become with his performances last year, particularly at the Olympics. They had been, at least for him, average, although it should be noted that his version of the average spins 200 in 19.7 seconds. Usain Bolt’s world record is 19.19.

His therapist explained to him that he is, at heart, a performer and that performers need an audience. For nearly two years, the pandemic deprived him of that, culminating with the Olympics, where the track meet took place in a largely empty stadium that should have been packed with 70,000 screaming fans.

“If the crowd isn’t there, you’re going to run average,” Lyles said, his therapist told him.

And suddenly some of his sadness from last year made more sense to him. There were also other forces at work, forces that Lyles exposed on that night of tears in Tokyo.

He felt guilty for having participated in the Olympics when his younger brother, Josephus, had not. For years, countless people had told him he was meant to be the next Usain Bolt, but he was just trying to figure out his own identity. He had struggled with depression and decided to be open about his mental health, including his years of therapy as a child after his mother, who also struggled with mental illness, saw that her son shared some of his traits. emotional.

“I’m not defined by being an Olympic bronze medalist, or a gold medalist world champion, or the high school kid who turned professional,” he said that night. “It’s not who I am. I am Noah Lyles. I am not Usain Bolt’s successor. I am not André de Grasse’s successor. I am no one’s successor. I am me and this is what I will always be.

On Thursday night, Lyles will face Knighton, the 18-year-old phenom seen in track and field circles as both his and Bolt’s successor. Knighton finished fourth in the 200m in Tokyo and broke Bolt’s junior record over the distance.

So far in Oregon, Knighton has been smooth, calm and fast. He won his semi-final in 19.77 seconds, compared to Lyles’ 19.62.

Knighton described Lyles on Tuesday as a “good friend.”

“We try to push each other on the track as much as possible,” he said of Lyles.

The comparisons to Bolt and the expectations his performance raised haven’t changed him, Knighton said. He’s the same person he was last year, with a difference.

“I’m faster,” he said.

For Lyles, the differences are hard to exaggerate.

“The last time I had this much fun was in 2018,” he told Eugene. “I’ve got energy, and I’m in good shape, and I’m like, ‘Yo, come on, let’s have some fun.'”

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nytimes sport

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