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How World Champion Runner Noah Lyles Is Training For Olympics, Defeating Depression During Pandemic

Noah Lyles running. (Global Athletics)
Noah Lyles running. (Global Athletics)

All eyes are on reigning 200-meter world champion Noah Lyles.

The 23-year-old runner, musician and artist is training for this summer’s Olympic games in Tokyo, which have been shrouded in controversy and uncertainty.

The president of the Tokyo Games organizing committee resigned Friday after he made sexist comments about women. The games are set to begin on July 23, a year after the pandemic first delayed them. But with the coronavirus still raging around the world, it’s unclear what will transpire over the next few months.

Lyles is training as if the prestigious competition is absolutely happening.

“I can’t really think about what might happen,” he says. “Either way, I’m going to have to train.”

He and his brother recently started a nonprofit, the Lyles Brothers Sports Foundation, to support “kids who were like me” who have a passion for track, he says, but don’t have the money to do it.

He’s been open about having asthma, which puts him at a higher risk with the coronavirus, and his struggle with mental health. He’s been vocal about living with depression and anxiety because he says “as somebody that people look up to,” he feels it’s his job to share his experiences.

His depression went into overdrive when the Black Lives Matter movement surged in May of 2020, he says.

“That’s when I really just said, ‘OK, I’m already in therapy and therapy’s been going well, but now I’m getting hit really hard. I just feel that I need to go on medication,’ ” he says.

Normally a “bubbly” and “excitable” person, Lyles says he was feeling “pretty bad” being cooped up in the house because of the coronavirus and seeing Black Americans die at the hands of police.

He remembers a particular moment being with his mom and brother in the car when he realized what he was feeling wasn’t feeling normal. She and his brother “were laughing, having a good time,” he recalls. “And literally I could hear in my head, ‘Yeah, that was funny,’ and I couldn’t laugh.”

Depression never made it difficult for Lyles to run, but it dampened his spirits around his close-knit track group who were always laughing together.

“I felt like I was always just looking at them having fun and I couldn’t engage in it,” he says.

Since spring of last year, Lyles has been on medication to treat his depression and anxiety, which he says has made him feel “so much better.”

When Lyles isn’t on the track, he’s creating art or making rap and hip-hop music under the name Nojo18. His artistic side is inspired by his mom blasting music as a child, he says.

Music “definitely evokes a different attitude in how I train, how I do my art, how I act around the house,” he says.

At just 23 years old, he could be on the verge of fulfilling his dreams at the Tokyo Olympics. He feels a lot of pressure to know what his future holds, but says so far he just has been focused on doing what he loves.

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.