TOKYO — Erriyon Knighton entered high school with a dream of playing college football. His blistering-fast speed on the field immediately caught the attention of the track coach, but Knighton wasn’t initially interested in joining that team.
He eventually agreed to run, albeit reluctantly, after being convinced it would help improve his chances of getting recruited to play college football.
That was less than three years ago.
On Wednesday, the 17-year-old Knighton finished fourth in the men’s 200 meter finals at the Olympics Games. The youngest man on the U.S. track and field team since 1964 was narrowly edged off the podium by Canadian Andre de Grasse and American teammates Kenneth Bednarek and Noah Lyles — but he left little doubt about his status as one of the sport’s brightest young stars.
“He’s definitely going to be a monster in the future,” Bednarek said after the race.
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Per ESPN Stats & Information, Knighton is the youngest U.S. athlete to place inside the Top-4 in an Olympic track event since Wilma Rudolph finished third at 16 in the 1956 4×100 relay.
In terms of individual Olympic track events, he’s the youngest American to place inside the Top-4 since Betty Robinson won the women’s 100 meters at 16 in 1928.
It’s been a monumental rise on the track for Knighton. By last summer, following the end of his sophomore season in high school, he had run the second-fastest time in the 200 meters by a runner under 18 in history — a feat achieved at the AAU Junior Olympics. Knighton said that was the moment he knew he had a special talent.
By January, the then-16-year-old opted to turn professional and signed with Adidas despite having received a number of football scholarship offers. He knew he was behind in his training compared to his American peers who would be battling against him for a spot, but he nevertheless turned his sights to the Olympic Games.
In May, Knighton broke Usain Bolt’s U-18 record for the 200 meters, set in 2003, with a time of 20.11 seconds at a World Athletics Continental Tour Bronze event. The comparisons to Bolt were fitting, in part because of Knighton’s similarly-long stride, but the result vaulted expectations for Knighton’s burgeoning career.
However, he still would need to finish top three in a staggeringly-deep field of sprinters at the Olympic trials to book his ticket to Tokyo. In his first run during qualifying heats at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in June, Knighton ran yet another personal best and beat Lyles, the event favorite.
“It was a good race,” Knighton said afterward. “I came out here and did what I had to do. Not too much pressure, but I had to run …
“It’s all new to me. Every day I learn something new from everyone who has experience being here.”
In the semifinals, Knighton bested his time yet again — and smashed Bolt’s U-20 record in the process. Not only did he set another personal best in the final, but he finished third and secured his once-seemingly improbable spot on the Olympic team.
Lyles, who won that race and took home the bronze Wednesday, was impressed Knighton had achieved his one-time dream of making the team while still in high school.
“To watch him PR in each round I was thinking, ‘Don’t gas out, don’t gas out,” Lyles said at the Olympic trials. “I was like, ‘Bruh, you did it, you did what I couldn’t do.’ He did it [and] I’m just so happy for him.”
In Tokyo, Knighton won his first round and semifinal races to advance to the final, becoming the youngest man to do so since 1984. He showed few signs of inexperience throughout his time in Tokyo. However, there was slight evidence of naivety ahead of Wednesday’s race. While some of his peers had planned flashy (and gif-able) entrances before running out into the stadium, Knighton sheepishly smiled and waved to the camera when his name was introduced, as he pointed at the “USA” on his chest.
There were no spectators in the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium but he looked surprised — overwhelmed, even — by the fanfare.
After he crossed the finish line in 19.93 seconds, just .19 behind Lyles, Knighton bent to the ground and looked around, as if everything he had achieved to that point had just hit him. Meanwhile, back home in Tampa, Florida, his fellow classmates and former football coaches watched on in the auditorium at Hillsborough High School.
Bolt, widely considered the greatest sprinter of all time, collected an astonishing eight gold medals during his career but left his first Olympic Games in 2004 empty-handed. Slowed by a leg injury, Bolt failed to advance past the first round in the 200 meters — his only event — in Athens. He turned 18 during the Games and was several months older than Knighton is currently.
However, he wouldn’t lose a race again during the next three Olympics — running both the 100 and 200 meters and the 4×100 relay. (Bolt’s 2008 relay team was later stripped of their title after a teammate tested positive for doping.)
Knighton also runs the 100 meters and his personal best time of 10.16 seconds is just 0.1 off of the U-18 record. He did not run in the race at Olympic trials but plans to continue with both distances going forward. With his finish Wednesday, the comparisons to Bolt will only grow.
Knighton won’t be on the podium during the victory ceremony at Olympic Stadium, but he left an impression on those who will be.
“He’s going to be dangerous in the future,” Bednarek said. “Seventeen-years-old and being able to run this fast. He’s raw, got a lot of talent, and [has] a lot of things to work on.”
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