Delayed but not denied: Josephus Lyles talks self-respect, setbacks, brotherhood
Josephus Lyles’ path has been a little different than his older brother, but despite injuries, other setbacks and disappointment, there’s no one that’s cheered harder for Noah than Josephus. The 24-year-old U.S. sprinter opens up about learning to speak up for himself, how to navigate dealing with comparison and brotherhood.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: How did you get your start in track and field?
Josephus Lyles: My mother and father ran track and field. My dad, Kevin, was on the 1995 World Championships team. He got a gold medal on the 4x400m there, and my mom, Keisha, was a multiple time NCAA champion. My brother Noah and I were around the sport for a long time. My dad used to train at the University of Florida, and we would be playing in the sand pits while he was at practice. When we were younger, we never did track. Our parents wanted us to try a lot of sports and have fun.
The first time I did track, I actually hated it. I ran the 400m and the 800m, and I remember running AAU track in the summer. We lived in North Carolina at the time, and it was so hot. Running the 800m was hard. I did not enjoy it at all, so I quit track around fifth or sixth grade. I came back to the sport in eighth grade, and the only reason I did it was because my friends at the time were going to run track.
When I started running in eighth grade, the eighth graders in the middle school were allowed to play high school JV sports because we didn’t have middle school sports. I just started loving it. I don’t know what it was. ... My dad wasn’t my coach. The family dynamic when your father is your coach can be a little tense. But I remember falling in love with it and succeeding. I started to love the training aspect and the grind and started doing well.
Speaking of tense family dynamics, tell me the story of you and your dad racing.
Lyles: Crazy story! This happened that same eighth-grade year that I was running track in Virginia with our high school. My dad coached a summer team in North Carolina, so we could go down there. One day we were at my aunt’s house playing around outside and challenging one another and just being competitive. We had a push-up contest, and I called my dad a “has-been,” and that did not fly well!
He looked at me and said, “I can take you in the 400m.” Eighth-grade me was like, “You can’t take me.” He was like, “Based on my seniority and knowledge of the sport. Just give me three months. I’ll race you in the 400m.” A few months later, he saw me race at the AAU regional qualifier, and my coach looked at him and said, “That’s the son you’re supposed to race? I don’t think you’ve got that.”
So the race never happened. I won by default, and we called it a day.
Track and field has clearly always been a family affair, but when did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you?
Lyles: I remember watching 19-year-old Kirani James win the 400m at the 2012 Olympic Games and thinking, wow, I can do that. That is actually the first time I remember watching an Olympic Games. I had watched them before, but I never really considered what was happening and why it was significant.
After watching that I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics. When I graduated high school, I knew it was going to be an Olympic year, so Noah and I immediately started figuring out how much time we needed to drop each year to compete at an Olympics.
Wow, I love that story. Were there any other Olympic athletes you looked up to in addition to Kirani?
Lyles: I’m a student of the sport. I love, love, love track and field! I study everybody. I’ve seen 1988 [Olympic 400m champion] Steve Lewis. 1992 [Olympic 400m champion] Quincy Watts. Any good runner out there, I’ve probably watched their races. Probably my favorite runner right now is Asafa Powell, who has since retired, but I watch his videos the most now. I have so much respect for him, his technique, his power and how consistent he was. That’s someone I want to emulate.
Take me back to the Tokyo Olympic Trials. You came so close to reaching your goals but were eliminated in the semifinals. What did that experience teach you about yourself?
Lyles: 2021 was an interesting year. I remember at the beginning of the year, I told my coach I wanted to run the 200m. Before that I was a 400m runner. Usually a change like that is not really warranted during an Olympic year. He agreed to train me to run all of the events -- 200m, 400m and 100m. We could reassess in the middle of the season. I don’t think I quite understood the task at hand. I had run 20.2 the year before that while training for the 400m. The 200m and the shorter sprints, I really enjoyed those races, and I wanted to really enjoy what I’m doing.
I remember going into the Tokyo trials thinking I was in good shape to run well, but there were still a lot of things I didn’t understand about the event like race distribution and how to really attack the event. I felt like I had what it took to be in that final, and I wasn’t able to perform at that time [finishing 10th in the semifinals, where the top eight went to the final]. It really hurt, but I have a lot of faith. I always believe in me. When that didn’t happen I was like, OK, this wasn’t what God had planned for me at this time, but I knew that it wasn’t the end. It was fuel.
What’s your ultimate goal for your athletic career?
Lyles: I want to be the best in the world. It would be almost disrespectful to myself to not line up on the track and want to be the best. I race against the best in the world already. I train with my brother right now, who’s the best in the world in the 200m. My goal is to be the best me that I can be. I want that version of me to be the best in the world. If it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards, but I’m going to try every day to make that happen.
You’ve had a few injuries and setbacks along your journey. How have you dealt with them, and what have you learned from the hard seasons?
Lyles: It’s a hard topic. ... When you’re trying to be the best, you’re always trying to push your body. You’re running along the thin line of not training hard enough versus getting hurt. I tore my quad, my rectus femoris, three or four centimeters off the bone when I was coming out of high school. Right before I had turned professional. When I first entered the pro scene, I was really just expecting myself to go and automatically be the best. The idea that I had for my journey didn’t unfold that way.
I struggled my first few years as a pro in not being the best in the world and really having to be OK with climbing the ladder. I’m glad that it did happen because it taught me so many things in terms of who I am as a person, how I deal with adversity and giving me a lot of faith. I know that whatever knocks me down, I can get back up. I can come back from that.
Can you talk about the reality of having to balance being happy for others in their seasons of joy, while dealing with the pain of your own disappointment and sadness? This hits close to home for people in all walks of life, but I feel like it’s not talked about enough.
Lyles: That’s such a good question. My brother and I are very close, and we’ve had a lot of different journeys. It’s interesting. My mom always says that when we were younger kids in school, I would always excel at school. I was very intelligent and picked up on traditional learning very well, and I was very athletic as well, so it wasn’t hard for me to succeed there. Noah had a much harder time with traditional learning. He struggled with learning disabilities, so it was very hard for him. In this season of our lives, from ages 18 to 22, it was kind of the opposite. Noah excelled in track and field when we first turned pro, and I had setbacks in my life. It’s definitely hard.
I remember for the 2019 World Championships in Doha, I didn’t go because it was very hard for me to process that I didn’t make the team. I felt like that was the year that I was going to come into my own, and it did not go the way that I thought I would. In 2018, I was progressing pretty well and got sixth at U.S. Championships for the 400m. In 2019, I didn’t make the finals and was devastated. I remember watching the 2019 World Championships on TV, and I think that year, me not going to those championships really flipped a switch in my brain. I started to feel like I didn’t need to compare myself to other people.
At that point, I was comparing myself to [Noah] and thinking, OK, well he’s achieved all of this. I train just as hard as him, we do similar things, but I feel like I’m not achieving that. At one point, I felt like I deserved to be there because I’ve put in all the work. I had to switch my mentality to “I don’t deserve anything.” There’s so many people who put in so much time and effort and don’t get far in their field of work.
I switched my mindset to focusing on doing what I can do and being very happy for my brother and my training partners. I’ve always been happy for them. Once I started thinking like that, it was a weight off my shoulders. I wasn’t competing to prove myself. I was just competing to be the best that I can be. I didn’t need to show the world that I can run fast. I just decided to focus on running fast because I enjoy doing it.
RELATED: Josephus Lyles focused on separate journey from brother
Switching gears, let’s take a look back at last season. After finishing fifth in the 200m at the U.S. Championships, you initially assumed you’d missed a spot on the world team. Then what happened?
I went to team processing for being an alternate. There’s not a lot of stuff when you’re an alternate, kind of just your contact information, so I fill it out and I leave. I go to eat because I’m starving, and my brother calls me and tells me, “You need to come to team processing.” I said, “I already did that for the alternates.” And he said, “No, they want you for the relay pool.” And I was like, “Are you lying?! You’re not playing with me right?” We had literally just sat down to eat dinner, and I leave right then and go. I’m trying on all my USA stuff, putting in my contact information, and it just didn’t feel real.
It didn’t feel real because going into the championships, I really felt like I was going to make the team. I felt like God put on my heart, I’m going to make this team. And then when I didn’t, when I ended up getting fifth at the trials, I was so devastated. So when I got that call, I was like, wow, this is not the way I thought I was going to be on the team, but I’m here.
Editor’s Note: Traditionally, the top three per individual event at nationals make the world championships team. In the 100m, it’s usually the top six to fill out the 4x100m relay pool. Last year, the fourth-place finisher in the 100m was not named to the team. No reason was given. The rest of the 100m finalists were already on the team, either in the 100m, 4x100m pool or the 200m. Lyles was the highest-placing man from the 200m who was not already on the team.
What was your mom’s reaction?
Oh, my mom was screaming and crying. I actually didn’t tell her for a while. I went to team processing at like 5 or 6 and finished at 9. I went back to my hotel room and called my mom and said, “Hey mom, I’m on the team.” It’s funny because my mom was just crying with me in the warm-up area after [the race] and so she’s screaming her head off, so many questions. I just kept saying, “I’m on the team. I’m on the team.” She’s just going crazy. She’s screaming. It was just such a surreal moment.
You set a personal best of 19.93 at the U.S. Championships and made your first world championships team. What are you doing differently in training?
Lyles: The funny thing is training is somewhat similar. I’m much more dialed in on myself and how my body moves. I think it’s also very important for athletes to understand the programs you do -- why you do it and how you can maximize those programs. For me, I’ve always been a very strong athlete. I’ve always been able to lift and move a lot of weight in the gym, but that wouldn’t always transfer to the track. Starting to understand more about what muscles I’m actually firing at what times and learning how to fire those muscles in practice and in competition versus just in the gym -- overall body awareness -- and help from my performance physiotherapist. Dr. Jo Brown. Really trying to ask people for help has been instrumental.
We’ve talked about your growth, missed opportunities and what it’s been like navigating injuries and disappointing seasons. With all that being said, what would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. in Paris 2024 at your first Olympic Games mean to you?
Lyles: It would mean the world to me. This has been a dream for me for years now. In 2016, I qualified for the Olympic Trials, and I tore my quad and was devastated. Noah went and finished fourth in the 200m. I was on the right path, but still. In 2021, I didn’t make the team, but that wasn’t for me at that time. But a dream delayed is not denied. When I try out for the team in 2024, I know I’m going to be prepared. So making that team is going to mean the world to me. I don’t know if I’m going to cry, but in my head, I know I probably will.
You and Noah have been on this journey together for so long supporting each other in good times and in bad. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your older brother?
Lyles: Noah is very good at listening to what he needs and making it happen. When I watch other athletes and when I watch him, one thing that he does differently that is very important is he makes sure that whatever he needs, he’s going to get. A lot of athletes will need something and won’t ask for it thinking it’s not a reasonable request but that does not matter to Noah. He’s like, “This is what I need to do well. I’m going to get it.” That determination is almost like a respect for yourself. Where someone else has to tell you no. You’re not going to deny yourself.
Seeing that is inspiring and has definitely allowed me to have the same mentality and respect myself enough to say this is what I need. It’s a level that you hold yourself and the others around you to. In this journey, it’s not just one person. It’s a lot of people coming together to make that dream a reality.
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