Michael Norman reveals success strategy 

Michael Norman is the fastest man in the world over 400m, but does Olympic greatness await at Tokyo 2020 by matching Michael Johnson?

7 min By Ken Browne
Michael Norman of USA competes and wins the Men's 400m Final during the IAAF Diamond League Memorial Van Damme at King Baudouin Stadium on September 06, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Michael Norman is the fastest man in the world over 400m, but he wants to slow down.

'PATIENCE' is the word on Norman's Instagram bio, written 14 times side-by-side in capital letters.

A reminder to himself and his impatient nature that in the age of Instafame, that greatness is earned over time.

"I'm an impatient person," he said, after running 19.70s in the Rome Diamond League 200m in June 2019, beating favourite Noah Lyles, “I just have to stay patient and trust my training.”

By slowing down, breaking it down, listening, training and tuning, Norman has gained speed and lost seconds off his personal bests.

And now he's proved he can beat Lyles, the USA track star set off speculation on his 200-400m double chances at the Tokyo 2020.

Only one man has managed that in history: Michael Johnson at Atlanta 1996.

Is Norman next?

Norman v Lyles - A legit rivalry

Norman is not as impatient as everyone thinks though.

Four years ago at the 2015 USATF Junior Outdoor Championships three relatively unknown teenagers lined up against each other: Noah Lyles, Michael Norman, and Christian Coleman.

“To see where we are now is, you know, crazy,” Norman says when he's reminded of that race.

Coleman is the new 100m world champion, Lyles is in the 200m leader (19.50) and Norman is the man at 400m (43.45).

At that Junior meet in 2015 Lyles won in 20.18, to Norman's 20.24.

Norman went home and wrote four life goals in gold marker on computer paper.

One of them read: Beat Noah Lyles.

Norman faced Lyles again one year later at the US Olympic Trials before Rio 2016, and the margin between them was even smaller, 20.09 to 20.14, neither making the team.

Then last year with both turned pro, the pair met at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Lausanne, Lyles once again coming out on top, clocking 19.69 to Norman’s 19.88.

Then came Rome.

Norman's first victory in four attempts spanning four years.

“Noah Lyles is, like, the first real competitor that I’ve had in track and field that has really, like, pushed me over each edge and has beat me non-stop”

- Michael Norman

“When I finally beat Noah in a 200m in Rome, I was like, ‘Finally. Oh my gosh. Like, four years and counting.’ It took me four years to beat this guy just one time. And it was just a sigh of relief."

“People keep hyping up the rivalry between us, which is great, but I just felt like I needed to put a number on the board for it to be, like, a legitimate rivalry.”

“Now I get to go home and take that paper down and write some new goals.”

New goals

Is matching Michael Johnson's 200/400m double at Atlanta one of those goals?

“It’s going to take a very, very, very special person to do something like that,” Norman has said in response to that question.

The problem is that the 200m and the 400m often overlap.

They did at nationals and Norman didn't run the 200, they also intersect at the Worlds.

In Tokyo the 200m semifinals and final are on the two days between the 400m semifinals and final, but he's still keen to try.

“Is it feasible? Of course, it’s feasible. But maybe not feasible to perform very well. Shoot, is it enticing to do it? Yes. Am I gonna be ready for it? I won’t know until the end of this year if I’ll be ready to do it."

"But I think I’ve just got to keep progressing as an athlete, and then I think, if I can keep progressing the way that I am, I think eventually I will be ready.”

It's not impossible to petition a move of the events to accommodate an athlete at the Olympics.

They did it for Johnson in '96, and again for Alyson Felix at Rio 2016, but Norman will need to make a big statement in Doha if he wants people to listen.

Becoming world champion and beating Wayde Van Niekerk's world record would make a noise hard not to hear.

What's new about Michael Norman?

But what is it that could inscribe Michael Norman's name alongside greats like Michael Johnson?

What's new about Norman?

When Usain Bolt burst onto the scene, no-one could believe that a 1.96m 6'4" tall sprinter could explode off the blocks the way he did.

Or stay with the shorter more powerful starters over the drive phase and first 30m, achieving maximum extension on those giant strides allowing him to streak away from everybody else towards the finish line.

Bolt was like a hyper-evolved next-gen sprint machine from the future. Built for brilliance.

But what's new about Michael Norman?

At 185cm, 6'1", he doesn't have Bolt's height, but there are certain similarities in his technique - the looseness in his shoulders, the natural, clean motion and smooth mechanics, the straight inflections on the arms.

Physically he has incredibly strong legs that give him a big kick and flexibility despite the muscle mass, his heels almost touching his lower back and he achieves maximum extension on every stride.

Then there are those powerful shoulders keeping him straight and steady at full speed and his arms go up and down without rotation or excess movement.

Quincy Watts won 400m and 4x400m relay gold medals at Barcelona 1992 and now is Norman's coach, he's convinced that this prodigy is 'destined for greatness'.

"I've seen Butch Reynolds, Steve Lewis, Michael [Johnson], and Wayde [Van Niekerk]. I have never seen anyone like him."

- Quincy Watts

"He has a potential speedwise to be faster than them all," says Watts, but this is crucial difference that sets him apart according to his coach:

"The combination that makes him over-the-top special is he has the endurance and the stamina to go with that speed."

When you watch Norman run and hear the things he says, there's something else that's special about him too:

He listens.

His running style is honed, perfected, with very little wasted movement and energy, like he's dismantled his technique, pared things down and stripped out all the excess so that there's just the most efficient and effective running technique left.

He has a lot to thank his coaches for - and he does, regularly - but his capacity to learn is as impressive as the speed he translates ideas and lessons to races.

After his Rome win, Norman said: "I just went out there really focused on errors and worked on some technical areas that me and coach Caryl [Smith Gilbert] and coach [Quincy] Watts were talking about."

“The time [19.70] is a reflection of all the hard work and the trust I have in my coaches,” he told NBC Sports.

The ability to process advice and focus methodically on improvements might just be Norman's greatest strength.

"Leaving a legacy is what's most important"

Being fast runs in the family.

Norman's Japanese-born mother Nobue was an accomplished sprinter herself, as was his older sister Michelle, and Norman stood out from an early age.

But allied to his talent, he also has a humility and maturity beyond his years, at 21 he already knows what type of legacy he wants to leave behind:

"Saying that you're world champion is cool, saying that you're Olympic champion is amazing, but leaving a legacy is what's most important."

"If you look at Usain Bolt and what he's done over his 12-year career, he left a legacy, he changed the sport forever and now everybody is elevated to these next levels so it's something I want to do myself in the 400."

"I want to be remembered as somebody who's a great competitor, a great person, and a great athlete."

By equalling Johnson's Atlanta double, his Olympic immortality would be assured too.

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