Herrion Knighton may soon be faster than Usain Bolt

TAMPA, Florida. When Herrion Knighton, a few months after his 18th birthday, became the fourth fastest 200m runner in history on April 30, fellow sprinter Michael Cherry tweeted in amazement: “This boy got algebra on Monday.”

Knighton was still a few weeks away from finishing high school when he ran half a lap around the track in 19.49 seconds, lowering his own junior world record, once held by Usain Bolt, at the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Knighton turned professional in January 2021, days before his 17th birthday. A few months later, he finished fourth in the 200m at the Tokyo Olympics, so his victory in this modest event was no surprise. It was amazing how quickly Knighton crossed the finish line at such a young age.

This weekend he will compete in the US Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon as a favorite and is expected to qualify for the World Championships there in July when he believes he can win.

Unable to immediately see the scoreboard in Louisiana State, Knighton reacted without much emotion to his victory. He knew he was running fast, but he didn’t know that he was only surpassed by three of the greatest sprinters of all time – Jamaican Bolt, a three-time Olympic 200m champion who holds the senior world record in the 200m. 19.19 seconds; Johan Blake of Jamaica, 2012 Olympic silver medalist with a personal best 19.26; and Michael Johnson of the United States, who won the 1996 Olympics in 19.32.

Improvements in sprinting most often occur in just hundredths of a second, sliced ​​as thinly as carpaccio. But Knighton won more than three-tenths of a second off his previous best of 19.84. It could have been a minute in the world of elite athletics, especially considering it was his first 200m run of the season. Expectations that day were vague, like a tailwind.

Knighton expressed surprise, saying that he did not think he would achieve such a result 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 does he think differently? No teenager has ever run so fast. Not Bolt, not anyone.

When Knighton unrolled his 6ft 3m frame from starting blocks, he would sometimes drag his left or back foot along the track. But he left cleanly at the LSU meeting. Before he got out of the corner, the race was effectively over.

The track seemed to lean, as if heeled, as Knighton came out of the corner and he seemed to be running downhill, landing like elite sprinters do, just behind the balls of his toes, his heels never seeming to touch the ground. His head was completely motionless, his hands moved, but relaxed, a light wind blew against 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 steps than shorter sprinters, which delayed his late-race fatigue and allowed him to maintain greater speed towards the finish line. His trainer admired the grace and suppleness of Knighton’s stride. That is, how deftly he absorbed the landing energy with a maximum force of about five times his body weight and quickly jumped into the air.

The main measure of speed is the product of stride length and cadence. Elite sprinters usually hit the track and take off again in about nine hundredths of a second.

“He’s almost like a pogo stick,” said Holloway, who is head coach at the University of Florida and head coach of the US track and field team at the Tokyo Olympics.

At the Tokyo Games, 17-year-old Knighton was the youngest American track and field Olympian since renowned runner Jim Ryun in 1964. According to NBC, he became the youngest male track and field athlete to reach an individual Olympic final in 125 years. If Knighton stays healthy and qualifies for the World Championships in July, many expect him to win a medal and possibly a podium finish. When the Paris Olympics begin in 2024, he will be only 20 years old.

People often ask if he wants to be the next Usain Bolt. I’m honored to be compared, 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 under my own name,” Knighton said recently over a leisurely lunch with his fellow coach, Jonathan Terry, who runs a Tampa track and field club called My Brother’s Keeper. The conversation turned from athletics to fast cars and the problems of catching catfish.

At 18, Knighton hasn’t looked as close under the hood of his inboard engine as he has looked under the hood of an $80,000 Dodge Hellcat he’d like to buy. He leaves biomechanics to his trainers. He has higher thoughts. Sometimes in training, Knighton looks into the distance, daydreaming. Terry has to call his name to break his reverie.

“I’m probably thinking about breaking the world record,” Knighton said.

According to his coaches, Knighton is confident, diligent and fearless, he is not touched by fame. But international waiting is a heavy burden on the narrow shoulders of a teenage sprinter, however precocious. So Knighton’s camp is trying to make him faster, actually slowing him down.

They talked him out of the Hellcat with its exorbitant insurance premiums. His workouts are low volume. He did relatively little weight lifting to fill out his 164-pound frame. This season, he spent only four races. As a precaution, he withdrew from the New York competition in early June after feeling a slight tingle in his lower back during practice.

It’s not serious, Knighton said. He just didn’t want it to get serious.

“If we want longevity in the sport, we can’t beat him,” Holloway said, noting that the Jamaicans also carefully crafted Bolt. “People forget that Bolt was really good at 16 and 17 and when he was 21, 22 he was unbeatable.”

Knighton should look no further than an Olympian peer Trayvon Bromellanother 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 meters in under 10 seconds (9.97) and won the NCAA title at Baylor University. He also won a bronze medal in this distance at the 2015 World Championships in Athletics. But Bromell tore his Achilles tendon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and did not reach the 100m final in Tokyo despite being the gold medal favorite.

“It can go wrong in a lot of ways,” said Peter Weyand, a biomechanics expert at Southern Methodist University who studies elite sprinters. “Bolt is a classic story about the ingredients that are needed to make everything go right: strong family support, friends, really good, stable management and good coaching.”

If Knighton avoids serious injury and maintains a solid support structure while his career continues on a normal trajectory, Weyand said, he is likely to beat Bolt’s 200-meter record (19.19), once considered untouchable. “I think it could be argued that he could probably do it,” he said. “Damn, he is almost half a second faster than Bolt of the same age. This is madness. He’s a phenomenon.”

Knighton’s athletic career began in 2019 as a freshman 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 quarterback who could squat 500 pounds and deadlift 450. Southeastern Conference powers including Georgia and Alabama showed interest. However, his career path turned from football fields to the tracks built around them.

At the age of 16 at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games, Knighton ran the 100m in 10.29 and the 200m in 20.33, a national record in the age group. In January 2021, months before the Tokyo Games, he turned professional by signing with Adidas and hiring John Regis, a British triple Olympian and UK 200 record holder, as one of his agents.

“I ran what the pros ran,” Knighton said. “I thought if I could practice a little, I could be one of them.”

At the Olympic Trials last June, he twice broke Bolt’s junior world record in the 200m, setting his then career best of 19.84. To watch Knighton perform in the Olympic 200 final from Tokyo in August, about 500 people gathered at a party at Hillsborough High School, cheering and waving flags.

“Students, teachers, cafeteria workers, caretakers – this place has exploded,” said Eric Brooks, the school’s athletic director.

Knighton finished fourth with a score of 19.93 An amazing performance for a teenager. When the TV camera reached him, he sat down on the path and smiled, but it was a smile of contemplation of what could have been. His start was erroneous and at the finish line he was unable to match the strength of the medalists. “I didn’t think I was strong enough,” he said.

Holloway, head Olympic track and field coach, spoke to Knighton after the race. The teen was pissed off. He thought he could win. Holloway told him, “I don’t want you to ever forget how you feel right now; And remember, you’ll never want to feel like this again.”

This spring, Knighton improved his 200 personal bests to 19.49 and 100 to 10.04. Terry believes he can drop his time by 200 to 19.39 this summer and, if he runs perfect, he could run 19.18 or faster – a world record – in 2024. To do this, Knighton will have to improve his start and gain strength to stand. gets taller as he runs, raising his hips to get full leg extension.

“He’s like a foal that’s been born and can barely walk,” Holloway said. “Then they get stronger and become the Secretariat.”

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