The Noah Lyles Effect: A World Champion’s Quest to Transcend and Transform Track and Field
“I’ve always known that I was the world’s fastest man, but now you guys know it.” It’s the kind of confidence that has become commonplace for Noah Lyles, 26, the six-time world champion who this time was speaking to an audience amidst the hustle-and-bustle of the city that never sleeps at the Planet OMEGA exhibition in New York last month.
Lyles was dressed in black from head-to-toe with a diamond-textured chain draped across his neck, an outfit that was unsurprisingly fashion-forward for a man leading the charge to bring the walk-in, a standard part of NFL, NBA and WNBA game player arrivals, to his sport of track and field. But as usual, the loudest accessory Lyles wore was confidence. It’s the same confidence that powered his self-fulfilled prophesy to become the first man since Usain Bolt to win the 100-200 meter double at a world championships this summer in Budapest.
2023 was a year of realization for Lyles, who overcame early-season skepticism to win the world title in the 100m, the sprint event where he is far less dominant but the spotlight is far brighter. He left 2023 World Championships with three gold medals, becoming just the second man in history to win the 200m three times (in Bolt’s company again) and anchoring the U.S. to the 4x100m gold.
Nearly every word that Lyles has emphatically spoken over himself has come true. Yet in reflecting on his still relatively young career, his lofty accomplishments on the track are a stepping stone to his grander vision: becoming an icon. Lyles, a product of the D.M.V. — Alexandria, Virginia to be exact — has the four-letter word tattooed on his torso.
Olympic medals, world titles, and transcending the sport of track and field are part and parcel of the Noah Lyles effect. But what exactly makes up the formula for this phenomenon?
In speaking with Lyles, the same elements consistently emerge: an unquestionable belief in oneself, unstifled creativity, an uninhibited personality, and a solid core group.
Lyles’ team consists of his momager (mother and manager), Keisha, his agent Mark Wetmore, his coach Lance Brauman, and psychologist Diana McNab.
From the strategy of his workouts down to the socks on his feet — everything that Noah Lyles executes is carefully calculated.
The Met Gala. Red Carpet appearances. U.S. Opens. Fashion Shows. TV and Entertainment.
The meticulous planning and attention-to-detail is what’s paved the way for Lyles to not just occupy spaces that track and field athletes traditionally have never stepped foot in, but to take over them.
In the conversation with NBC Sports below, Lyles discusses his vision and strategy, taking on the NBA, and what he sees for the future of track and field.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It seemed like a few years ago, the bar for most track and field athletes was set at turning pro, getting that big sponsorship, and getting paid well enough to have a sustainable lifestyle. You’re an OMEGA ambassador, you’re sponsored by Adidas, you’ve got a docuseries on Peacock, things in the works with Netflix. You’ve walked in international fashion shows.
I read a quote in a New York Times article about you that said “But in this moment, he had already arrived. He was just working to bring sport along with him.” You’re redefining the landscape of what it means to be a track and field athlete. What does that mean to you?
Lyles: When I started my professional career, I remember meeting my agent for the first time. It was 2016 and we were in Alexandria, Virginia. I told Mark Wetmore that along with the goals I wanted to [achieve] in the track world, I wanted to transcend the sport. I refuse to just be another athlete that is known for running. It’s not me. I specifically said, I know what [Usain] Bolt has done, I want to do more. [My agent] said that he understood the assignment.
Ever since, that has always been in the back of my head [and what I’ve been] pushing towards. Whether that’s been coming into the sport wearing crazy socks and people identifying with that, doing backflips after races, going to Met Galas and U.S. Opens, doing deals with OMEGA so I’m not just known as a track guy—I’m a watch guy as well. Getting involved with other brands so that I’m known as a man of fashion and culture, and talking to other sports—that’s always been the goal.
One day they will realize that most of my big plans have nothing to do with running but with the business of the sport— Noah Lyles, OLY (@LylesNoah) November 21, 2023
A lot of people will be like “well, the world record has to be your magnum opus.” And the answer is no. That’s just another stepping stone to pushing the sport along.
For example, I’ll take the NBA situation. A lot of people in the track world said “Oh, your moment of winning three golds at world championships got overshadowed by the NBA situation.” But in my head, by gaining those medals, I finally got enough recognition and notoriety that people actually listened to what I had been saying. Because I had made comments like that for years but now that I have the medals and the accolades, now they [consider] my opinion as one that’s worth listening to.
You have been a brand ambassador with OMEGA since 2019. Can you talk about what you’re doing in NYC today and why this partnership is so important to you?
Noah Lyles: Today OMEGA is putting on a huge boutique of all their memorable moments. Of course sports is very well wound with them. They’ve been a part of the Olympics for over 90 years. Being the track and field guy that I am, holding the title of the world’s fastest man, they’re going to want to bring in a cool track and field guy. So I’m [in NYC] to talk about my journey with OMEGA.
It’s been very interesting to see you evolve over the last two Olympic cycles. In the leadup to Tokyo, the storyline surrounding you was focused on you overcoming severe asthma, dyslexia, and ADHD as a child, and how your mom did whatever she needed to support your family and your dreams. Fast forward to now, no one is even talking about that anymore. It’s bigger than your origin story and your victories on the track.
You’re becoming a global icon but it seems like you’ve had this strategy from the beginning. You’ve taken a lot of initiative with having your own social media team create your content and orchestrating these pre-race fashion walk-ins. This is some Kris Jenner-like stuff. Can you talk about what your game plan has been and how you’ve orchestrated it?
Lyles: The game plan has always been to transcend the sport. I’ve always felt that track and field has more to offer than what we’ve been showing. The saddening part is the deeper and deeper I get into the sport, the more and more I realize why it’s been so stuck. We’re still running on the same model that we’ve been using since 1970s. That track club environment.
I remember showing up to some indoor track meets and they were announcing the high schoolers were joining the 60 meters [race]. In my head I was like, I thought this was a professional track meet not an amateur track meet. That’s when I realized, oh, all track and field is amateur.
I thought I was going to be changing [the sport] from the inside [but in that moment I realized] I have to take a completely different path and do a lot of things on my own. I’m okay with that, but I thought there was going to be more of a willingness to see change, and there is, but it’s not from the inside. It’s from the new generation that’s coming along.
I can sense that there’s a [hunger] for change. Now, we’re so deep into the social media world. Back in 2012, Instagram and Snapchat were just becoming a thing. Now, they’re prominent tools in society that we use, and I feel that our sport is still not even [taking advantage] of that.
As I continue to move, I’m no longer looking at what we have and how it’s going to change. It’s more like, how can I write a completely different script? Because I know that it’s going to be a lot of work to try and change what has already been solidified for so long.
I’ve recently come up with a really good plan for that. I can’t share it yet but it’s going to be big. I’ve already gotten some key players in it. If it works, I feel that it will definitely change the way we look at our sport.
I feel like people don’t really understand the amount of work and effort that you put in off the track. They’re seeing you rise to this iconic level but I feel like you’re constantly brainstorming and you tap into your own resources to make it happen. Can you give an example of how things get executed? What is the process like? When you have an idea who do you call your mom? Mark?
Lyles: So I’ll give you an example with how the Peacock docuseries came to be. I’ve had a YouTube channel since like 2017, but I struggled to get it off the ground because it just took so much work. I have a very high demand for things that I put my name on and I wanted it to be at a very high quality. I left it alone for quite a few years. I went back to it once or twice, but I never could really keep getting into it. I finally get to a point where I found a media group that could do a lot of the video shooting, photography, and editing for me. They can handle a lot of the channel by themselves. We decide to do a test run in early 2022 for the New York Grand Prix.
We went out, we shot it, and it was great. I remember looking at the pilot, and I’m like this is it. This is the look. This is the idea. This is what track and field is missing. I sent it to my agent. I said there’s something here that people will want to see. This is the [behind the scenes] side and storytelling that nobody’s getting, that I know that people want to see. [My agent] sends it to a friend that he’s known for years that’s in that media sphere of pitching TV programs to bigger companies. He said that if we tweaked the story to look more like I’m chasing after the world record, people will gravitate towards it.
They pitched it to a few companies, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and then NBC. NBC wanted it really badly. Of course, I’ve had a long lasting relationship with them so I wasn’t too surprised. My biggest concern was, if I give you this project, how invested are you going to be? Because what I didn’t want was somebody to just own the story. Are you going to put your whole heart into it? Because once I attach my name to it, I’m going to be putting my whole heart into it. Are you going to be doing the same?
They agreed that they would and from there we found the production team. As soon as we got the green light we were working fast. Scott Boggins, who’s the Executive Producer of the project, has worked on a lot of docuseries before and he was very aware of the timeline and what he wanted to get.
It was quick and he didn’t have to keep scouring for information. He wasn’t just filming for filming sake. He was very particular on what he wanted, what he needed, and the story that was told. We got together, he showed me the first clip and I was like, this is it. That’s how that project was created.
I love that! When I spoke with your brother Josephus earlier this year, he said one of the things that you’re very good at is “making things happen and making sure that whatever you need, you’re going to get. He said, you have “this determination that is really such a high level of respect for yourself.” Where does that come from?
Lyles: It’s hard to actually figure out where that does come from. Because when I was a kid it wasn’t like that. I was just trying to survive, just trying to get through school, especially with ADHD and dyslexia and asthma. School was not the place that I learned. After I finished high school, I started learning how the world worked.
I felt that I truly had the skills to not only be at the top of whatever craft I wanted to create but to make it better. Having a dream is just the beginning but being able to put people together...I started realizing I was really good at that.
I always knew that I’m never going to be satisfied with something that I can’t visualize. For example, if I’m working with my stylist, and I have an idea of what this outfit should look like and somebody comes back and just says “that’s not it, this needs to be changed,” and I’m not being heard, I will physically start to feel a pain in my chest. And I can’t live with that.
So I constantly push people to not only get out of their comfort zone, but to get out of my comfort zone.
You teach people how to treat you and you have this unquestionable belief in yourself that you just talked about but I feel like you have this “GOAT” mentality that only a few people have. The Kobe Bryants. Michael Jordans. Usain Bolts, and now Noah Lyles. You’re putting yourself in that Mount Rushmore grouping of athletes and I feel like a lot of that comes from your mindset. So where does that mindset come from and how much of it comes from your mom’s influence?
Lyles: I felt that when I was a kid it was very hard to think that way because I was trying to go with society. I was learning it just really wasn’t for me. But I still felt that there was a place where I could be great. Being creative—being an artist was first. Track and field was the second place.
I then learned that you don’t have to section those off—none of this has to be divided. You can combine anything you want as long as you do it in the right way. When the Kanye West Netflix documentary “jeen-yus: A Kanye Triology” came out, he talked about his drive. I’ve already known a lot of Kanye’s story, but watching it there and seeing his drive, I was like “that’s my drive. " I feel that. There are just things that I just will not settle for. I know who I am. I know what I can create. I know what can be done and I’m not satisfied until I see that come to fruition. Being able to see that in the track world and create that...I’ve said to myself, why can I not do that in everything?
My mom, her portion of that was showing us how to basically create your path, how to create your team, how to create your dream. Because as a 12-year-old boy, saying that you’re going to go to the Olympics, there’s so much that goes into it. You’ve got to fundraise, you have to get to the track meets, get to Trials, qualify through time. Doing that in high school is very hard but she showed me how that would look. Ever since then, I’ve used that template throughout most of my projects.