Three summers ago, the track and field coach at a Tampa Bay high school stumbled across the most gifted young runner he’d ever seen.
Joseph Sipp watched a 14-year-old with a boyish face and an impossibly long stride showcase bewildering speed and acceleration during football conditioning workouts. When Sipp blew his whistle, the freshman-to-be would zoom past Hillsborough High’s other fastest players like they were wearing bricks for shoes.
“You have a chance to be pretty good on the track,” Sipp told the boy, not wanting to sound too eager.
“Nah, coach, I’m just a football player,” Erriyon Knighton responded.
Undeterred, Sipp stayed in Knighton’s ear the next few months, explaining how track could help the young receiver stay in shape and run faster for football. But when Hillsborough’s track team began working out and Knighton still didn’t show up, Sipp took a firmer approach.
“On Monday, I want to see you at track practice,” Sipp told Knighton. “No ifs, ands or buts about it, you're running.”
Sipp’s persistence and sharp eye for talent helped Knighton, 17, discover his true calling. The same kid who three years ago stubbornly only wanted to play football is now the youngest man to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team since 1964.
Knighton cemented himself as one of the rising stars in his sport last month by running the 200 meters in times that not even Usain Bolt matched at the same age. At a meet in Florida in early June, Knighton’s winning time of 20.11 seconds broke the under-18 world record that Bolt had held since 2003. The high school senior-to-be then improved on that time in all three rounds at the U.S. Olympic Trials, twice eclipsing Bolt’s under-20 world record of 19.93 seconds.
Nudging track’s all-time greatest sprinter out of the record books would be a heady feat for any 17-year-old. It’s an even crazier achievement for one who didn’t run in his first track meet until two and a half years ago.
The byproduct is a label that seems unfair to hoist on any teenager given all the world records, gold medals and viral moments that Bolt went on to attain. It’s the track and field equivalent of declaring a high school quarterback the heir apparent to Tom Brady or a hoops phenom the second coming of Michael Jordan.
Could Erriyon Knighton possibly be the next Bolt?
While Knighton’s height and running style are comparable to Bolt’s, a glaring difference between the two is how early they began pursuing track. Bolt’s family groomed him to be an Olympian after he flashed potential in grade school. As recently as a year or two ago, Knighton believed his speed was best suited to football.
Longtime Hillsborough football coach Earl Garcia planned to take advantage of Knighton’s home-run speed and dynamic playmaking ability when the future Olympian made his varsity football debut as a 10th grader. What caught Garcia by surprise was Knighton’s willingness to withstand a hit or deliver punishment.
“Not only was he fast, he was also physical,” Garcia told Yahoo Sports. “He got as excited about blocking as he did catching balls.”
While Garcia deemed receiver to be Knighton’s best position, he often deployed the 6-foot-3, 170-pound speedster all over the field. Knighton lined up at running back, returned kicks and filled in at cornerback and safety when the situation merited it. He even volunteered to emulate mobile opposing quarterbacks on the scout team, much to the frustration of Hillsborough defensive linemen tasked with trying in vain to chase him down.
By the summer after Knighton’s sophomore year of high school, scholarship offers from the likes of Florida, Florida State and Tennessee poured in. Around that same time, his coaches made a startling discovery that paved the way for him to perform even better as a junior.
“I took him to get his eyes checked, and we found out he couldn’t see,” Sipp said. “The doctor joked with him, ‘You're about blind as a bat.’ ”
Garcia purchased glasses and contacts for Knighton to fix his farsighted vision. As a result, he was able to see incoming passes as they traveled through the air instead of throwing up his hands just before the football was upon him.
“It made a huge difference,” Garcia said. “It’s a lot easier to catch a ball when you can see it.”
By the end of Knighton’s junior season seven months ago, even Alabama and Clemson were showing interest. It was clear he had a very bright future in football, but by then it was also clear that football wasn’t his best sport.
Before he could topple world-class sprinters like Noah Lyles and Trayvon Bromell on the track, Knighton first had to overcome some guys named Agiye Hall and Jeramiah Brown.
Those were two of the fastest sprinters at the Hillsborough County championships in April of Knighton’s freshman year of high school.
“I remember him coming up to me worried like, ‘I’ve got to run against this kid and that kid,” Sipp recalled with a chuckle. “I was like, Erriyon, you have nothing to worry about. You’re faster than all these guys.”
It took Knighton a little while to learn how to unleash his speed, but by the end of his freshman year, he began to unlock his potential. Only months removed from his first track meet, he placed fifth in the 200 final at the state meet and then lowered his personal best in that event to 21.39 seconds later in the summer.
That rapid progress persuaded Knighton to take track seriously. He joined a prominent Florida AAU track club and moved in with Sipp’s family for a few months at the height of the pandemic.
While COVID-19 wiped out much of Knighton’s 2020 track season, the talented sophomore worked behind the scenes to prepare for his return. Knighton concentrated on adding muscle, improving his start and learning proper sprinting mechanics.
“Put a block down, I want to do extra starts,” Knighton would tell Sipp. The next day Sipp would find Knighton working on his drive phase by sprinting with a parachute behind him.
The breakthrough arrived last summer at the Junior Olympics, Knighton’s first track meet in six months. Over four life-changing days in early August, he improved his personal bests in the 100 by nearly four-tenths of a second and in the 200 by more than a second.
Knighton’s runaway 20.33-second victory in the 200 final smashed the American 16-and-under record in the event. His time was just two-tenths of a second shy of Bolt’s 20.13 that he ran a month shy of his 17th birthday in July 2003.
“He put the world on notice that week that he was the real deal,” said Jonathan Terry, Knighton’s AAU coach with the My Brother’s Keeper track program in Riverview, Fla.
When corporate sponsors began courting Knighton after his stunning Junior Olympics weekend, Terry urged him to consider turning pro. The AAU coach told Knighton, “What do you have left to accomplish in high school when you’re winning races by 20 meters?”
Knighton eventually agreed — on one condition. Not quite ready to leave football behind, he told Terry, “Let me go make one last run with my high school team to try to win state. After that, I’ll go all in with track and field.”
In late November, Hillsborough lost to Palmetto in the third round of Florida’s Class 6A state playoffs. Less than two months later, still only midway through his junior year of high school, Knighton formally turned pro, signing a six-figure contract with Adidas.
All in on the track
Amidst external hand wringing over whether he was ready to compete against pros and how he would handle the temptations of newfound wealth, Knighton lowered his head and went to work. In addition to his physical preparation, he studied video of his races frame by frame to figure out how to improve the different parts of his 200.
Was he exploding out of the blocks using both feet? Did he execute his drive phase correctly? Did he reaccelerate at the right juncture coming out of the turn? Was his upper body tense or relaxed as he approached the finish line?
Knighton also watched footage of his top competitors leading up to Olympic Trials. By the time he arrived in Eugene, Oregon, he understood how Lyles, Fred Kerley, Isiah Young and Kenny Bednarek ran the 200 almost as well as they did.
“He’s become a student of the way he runs and how his competitors run,” Terry said. “That film study and preparation sets him apart.”
Knighton’s long hours on the track and in front of a laptop readied him for three days of racing in Eugene. He arrived with big goals for a 17-year-old running in his first Olympic Trials: To run his first sub-20-second 200 meters, to finish in the top three and to make the U.S. team.
The semifinal was Knighton’s finest race of his young career. He overtook the reigning world champion Lyles down the stretch, eased up over the final 10 meters and still ran a blistering time of 19.88 seconds.
Knighton ran four-hundredths of a second faster in the final but had to work much harder. It wasn’t until the results popped up on the Hayward Stadium scoreboard that Knighton began clapping his hands in celebration of a third-place finish and a ticket to Tokyo.
Among the many new fans that Knighton earned at Trials is Ato Boldon, the NBC track and field analyst who won a total of four Olympic medals in the 100 and 200 meters. Boldon came away confident that Knighton has the potential to run in the 19.7s in Tokyo and to potentially become the youngest-ever Olympic champion in the men’s 200.
“It’s the kind of year where 19.7s or 19.6 high will win the 200 at the Olympics,” Boldon said. “If you go back and look at his 19.8 from the semifinals, he’s capable of doing that. He just has to put together the right race.”
The Bolt comparison
The comparisons to Bolt are already inescapable after Knighton announced his presence on the international scene earlier this summer. They’ll reach a crescendo if the 17-year-old can medal in Tokyo at an age three years younger than when Bolt accomplished the same feat at either an Olympics or World Championships.
Those close to Knighton aren’t wild about the pressure “the next Bolt” chatter puts on Knighton but they’re not shying away from it either. As Sipp said, “It’s a fair comparison because he broke Bolt’s records. Now he has to try to live up to it.”
It says a lot about Knighton’s talent that Boldon doesn’t dismiss the question on the spot when asked if the teenage phenom can become the successor to Bolt. Boldon says Knighton has the ability to be a contender in at least the 200 for the next decade but cautions that it will take more than just medals for the American to rival Bolt’s impact on the sport.
Bolt became the face of track and field because of his unparalleled combination of world-class speed, playful showmanship and fun-loving charisma. Knighton avoided doing TV interviews after the first two rounds of the 200 at Trials and appeared uncomfortable in front of the camera when he finally did speak after the final.
“Bolt was so much more than just an athlete,” Boldon said. “He was a spokesperson, a personality. It’s still early, but this kid doesn’t seem to have that same personality. In this current landscape of sports, they’ll have to fix that.”
That’s exactly what Knighton’s team is trying to do.
They’ve hired a publicist who will begin working with Knighton after the Olympics. Until then, Terry has tried to emphasize to Knighton that people want to know his story. Terry has also tried to give Knighton more reps in front of the camera by arranging some local TV interviews for him in Tampa Bay.
“Erriyon is strictly business when he’s preparing for races, but away from the track he has the biggest personality,” Terry said. “We’ve been grooming him to make sure that he’s prepared, but people have to understand that he’s still a kid.”
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