Michael Norman is a man in a hurry.
For a sprinter, that isn’t always a bad quality to have. But the 21-year-old knows that it’s just as important to have patience.
The 21-year-old has swiftly ascended the world all-time lists for 200m and 400m over the past 12 months. Following a stellar U20 career in which he won world U20 titles at 200m and 4x100m, he dominated the 400m on the US collegiate scene last year, winning the NCAA title in 43.61. He turned professional shortly afterwards and reduced his 200m best to 19.84.
His progress has continued to this year and already, just four meetings into the outdoor season, he has clocked PBs of 43.45 for 400m and 19.70 for 200m, the latter coming at the recent IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome.
But despite his rapid rise, Norman is trying his best to be patient – both on the track and in his long-term career plan.
“I’m a very impatient person,” he said after his race in Rome, where he finished just 0.02 ahead of fellow prodigious US sprinter Noah Lyles. “I just have to stay patient and trust my training.
“The time is a reflection of all the hard work and the trust I have in my coaches,” he added. “My coaches (Caryl Smith Gilbert and Quincy Watts) couldn’t make it to Rome because they had to be at the NCAA Champs. But we had a couple of phone conversations to prepare for this race and we tried something new and I trusted them 100%. It’s testament of how much I trust them and how great a coach they are when it comes to adapting and making changes to each individual.
“Execution-wise, I think I made some huge improvements. I know if I go back and watch the race there’ll be a couple of things I could fix, especially the last 25 (metres) and the first 30 (metres) of the race. But overall I’m pretty happy with the race. I feel it’s a good start with this new pattern I’m going with.”
But when pressed on what his new race pattern involves, he was reluctant to reveal more.
“It’s a secret,” he smiled. “It’s a patience thing; that’s the most I can give away.”
Rivalry heating up
The 200m in Rome was just the fourth time that Norman had raced Lyles, but it was the first time that Norman had gained the upper hand.
Separated in age by just a few months, the pair’s first clash came as teenagers at the 2015 US U20 Championships with Lyles winning in 20.18 to Norman’s 20.24. The gap between the two was even smaller at the US Olympic Trials one year later as they finished fourth and fifth respectively in the 200m final, 20.09 to 20.14, both narrowly missing out on a spot on the team for Rio.
At last year’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne they had their first race as professionals, but Norman – coming off the back of a hectic collegiate season – was once again beaten as Lyles won in 19.69 to Norman’s 19.88.
Rome was Norman’s time to shine.
It didn’t come easy, though. Lyles, who had clocked a 100m PB of 9.86 just a few weeks before, trailed Norman as they came into the home straight. At one point Norman had built up a lead of about a metre, but Lyles – as is his trademark – finished strongly and closed in on his opponent. A well-timed dip gave Norman the slight edge on the line.
“I was surprised (to be leading at half way) but I knew that he was a strong finisher,” Norman said of his race against Lyles. “Instead of getting caught up in his race pattern, I was really just focused on myself and putting myself in a great position to finish strong because I know he is a very strong finisher and I was wary that he was going to come back in the last 50.”
The race had been billed as one of the biggest clashes of the meeting and it didn’t disappoint. The rivalry is only just beginning, though, and fans are now eager to follow the duo as the season progresses.
“Both of us have things to improve on,” said Norman. “That’s his opener of the season and it’s his fastest opener ever. But there are also things that I can improve on and I’m only going to get faster from here. It’s going to be a great rivalry between the both of us throughout the rest of the season and our career.”
Spoilt for choice
Norman was always destined to be a sprinter.
His Japanese-born mother, Nobue, was an accomplished sprinter in her day, so too was his older sister Michelle. Since his early days in the sport, Norman has divided his time between more than one sprint discipline.
Having impressed on the local high school scene for a few years, Norman truly came to prominence at the California State Championships in 2015. In one day, the then 17-year-old won the 200m in 20.30, the 400m in 45.19, and ran legs in the 4x100m and 4x400m, picking up a bronze medal in the latter.
He retained both titles one year later and then went on to earn his world U20 crowns in Bydgoszcz.
His first collegiate season at the University of Southern California in 2017 was solid, but it was his 2018 campaign that underlined his potential as a future world beater.
Such is his talent, Norman could contend for major honours at either 200m or 400m. He enjoys both, but in different ways.
“The 200 is definitely the most fun to race,” he says. “But the 400 is more fun to train for. I don’t really run many 400s all-out in practice. 400 work does hurt but it’s more of an uncomfortable fast rhythm instead of an all-out speed rhythm. I think I prefer that over the all-out fast rhythm – although it hurts at the end.”
Norman still views the 400m – in which he is equal fourth on the world all-time list – as his main event. The 200m – for which he is 12th all time – is his secondary discipline and one in which he feels still has room for improvement.
“I really don’t work on my block starts, so I think there are improvements to be made in my first 30 (metres),” he says. “I also think there’s a huge improvement to be made in the last 25 especially, but I think that’s just a matter of fitness and training.
“I’ll go back and forth between the 200 and the 400,” he adds of his plans for 2019. “I’m not sure how many 200s I have lined up. I know I’m running the 400 at my next meet, and after that it’s up in the air. But at the Diamond League final I’ll be running the 400m.”
World Championships ambitions
For now, the Norman-Lyles rivalry is a spectacle that will play out only on the invitational circuit and not at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
Lyles currently intends on contesting only the 200m in the Qatari capital, while Norman is focused on the longer sprint.
“This year unfortunately I’ll be focusing on just one event at the World Championships,” he said with a sigh that carried an underlying hint of impatience. “When coach Caryl has her mind set, it’s pretty set. My training throughout the fall has been focused on the 400m and doing 200s just for fun in training.”
He doesn’t rule out a potential double at future major championships, though.
“For my first year as a professional, I think it’s smarter and more beneficial for me to focus on just one event,” he says. “Then maybe as I mature and get used to the circuit, I can potentially go for a double.”
While Norman might not take on Lyles in Doha, there’s a good chance he’ll line up against world record-holder and defending champion Wayde van Niekerk.
The South African broke the world record when winning the 2016 Olympic title in 43.03 and went on to win a second world title in 2017 but missed most of 2018 through injury. He returned to competition earlier this year, though, and is set to compete at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London next month.
It’s currently unknown whether Van Niekerk and Norman will clash before the World Championships, but Norman is excited by the prospect.
“I’m definitely looking forward to his return,” he says. “I’ve never had the opportunity to race against him before, so it will be a very fun race and we’ll push each other to the next level. I’m just really excited and I hope he’s 100% healed up because as a competitive athlete I’d only want to race him when he’s at his best. And I hope he’s at his best so we can have a fair race.”
What makes the Van Niekerk-Norman rivalry all the more exciting is the fact they are quite similar in terms of their range of ability. Van Niekerk made history in 2016 by becoming the first athlete to break 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 44 seconds for 400m.
Norman could well become the second man in history to achieve the feat and is looking forward to running a 100m race at some point soon. His PB of 10.27, run into a -1.2m/s headwind, was set at a high school competition when he was just 18.
He is clearly capable of going much faster now, but – once again – he knows he has to be patient.
“I made a bet with coach Caryl,” he says. “I need to win that bet before I can run a 100m race.”
And, unlike his ‘secret’ race pattern, Norman was happy to reveal what that bet is.
“Win the World Championships.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF