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Erriyon Knighton is just 18 years old but has already shattered some of Usain Bolt’s junior sprint records. The Tampa native turned pro as a high schooler and signed with Adidas. Back in April, he ran a wind-legal 19.49 at a meet in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to become the fourth-fastest man in history. Only Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Johnson are ahead of him on the all-time list.
Knighton ran 19.84 for the previous U20 record in the semifinal of the Olympic Trials. He made the team and history as the youngest U.S. male track Olympian since Jim Ryun in the 1960s. He finished fourth at last year’s Olympics and in my podcast episode with him, you’ll hear just how much he wants a piece of hardware.
My colleague Mac Fleet and I traveled to Tampa earlier this month to spend some time with Erriyon and his coach Jonathan Terry. We will be releasing a video on our YouTube channel with some of the highlights of our time with him so subscribe and set your alerts to the CITIUS MAG YouTube channel for that and all our content from the upcoming US Championships and World Championships.
CITIUS MAG: What’s got you excited about your potential and you as a pro in the sport?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: Probably making the Olympic team. That got me excited. That’s making the Olympic team young. I’m going to try to make the World Championship team this year. I feel like making the team is what got me hype. It’s going and traveling across the world, being with a whole group of people and battling against other countries.
CITIUS MAG: Do you feel young at these pro races?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: I know I’m young but my mindset I don’t take it as if I’m young. I feel like I’m on the same level as anybody else that was there. There’s a reason that I was there. I wasn’t there because someone put me there. I earned my way there. I’m definitely young but my mindset is definitely not young at all.
CITIUS MAG: If we go back to your decision to turn pro, what factored into that? Was it a difficult decision?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: The only reason I’d say it was difficult is that it was giving up football. I wouldn’t say it was a no-brainer. I was just thinking about any wrong hit in football so why not go and start my track career early on the highest level. Even if I wanted to back to play football, my first love, I could go back and play it. Track is one of those sports that I felt I could take a chance on. If I would’ve failed, I thought I still had football I could go back to.
CITIUS MAG: There’s still time. You already made an Olympic team. You finished fourth at the Games. For a lot of people, that would’ve been the highlight of their career. You’ve already accomplished that at 18 years old. The next couple of years in track, it’s all just extra at this point.
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: No, it’s not.
CITIUS MAG: It’s not?
Erriyon Knighton: I didn’t do anything yet. I only made the Olympic team. I made the Olympic final. I only ran 19.4. I’m not saying that like it’s slow. I didn’t medal yet. I don’t have a world record yet. It’s not over. I don’t think this is the highest point. I feel like if you have a world record and a couple of medals behind you, that’s when you can be like, ‘Oh, track is just fun now.’ or ‘I can go play another sport.’
CITIUS MAG: Where did this hunger come from?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: Not winning. I wish everybody to have the mindset of winning. You should always want to stay hungry. Even if you break the world record, you should still want more until you retire or can’t do it anymore. I say, ‘Go get it while you still can.’ Go get what’s yours.
CITIUS MAG: People watching the Olympic Trials notice the high school kid. We were just in this same situation in 2016 with Noah Lyles finishing fourth in the 200m. You put yourself on the team. Can you take us inside your mindset going into the Trials and convince yourself you were going to make that team.
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: I’m not going to say I knew I was going to make the team but I knew. Even before the prelims started, I had a PR of 20.11. I was just trying to think of a way to drop my time. I ran 20.4 and thought, ‘That was kind of easy.’ The next day, I get ready for the semis and I ran 19.8. That was my first 19 ever. I’m like, ‘We coming’ but I’m still not excited yet. I was hype that I ran it but was chilling out because I still needed to make the team. I had to make the team before I could go out there and start showboating. The next day, I ran 19 seconds again and made the Olympic team. I wouldn’t say I had stress because I was 17 trying to make an Olympic team. Even if I wouldn’t have made the Olympic team, I would’ve been like, ‘Dang’ and it wouldn’t have messed with my mindset. I probably would’ve run a couple of meets after that.
CITIUS MAG: I enjoyed the moment on the broadcast where you just blew past Lewis Johnson on the NBC broadcast during the semifinal and skipped the interview and you told me that it was because business wasn’t taken care of.
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: The job was not finished. The job was not finished at all. I could’ve done the interview. I won the heat. I just don’t understand why you’d get so happy if you hadn’t made the Olympic team yet. It’s only going to make you sadder when you don’t make the team and you’re in front of the camera showing out.
CITIUS MAG: You didn’t even bother celebrating the high school record that you broke. (Note: Knighton is ineligible for the official high school records because he turned pro.)
CITIUS MAG: What were the dynamics of that Olympic team? Noah Lyles was coming in as the reigning world champion and Kenny Bednarek was on the rise. It’s a fairly young team and it could be the team for the next couple of years.
CITIUS MAG: For these World Junior records and World Youth records that you go out and break, do you know much about them before you do it?
CITIUS MAG: When you watch back your races, do you know where the areas for improvement are that separate you and the world record? I’ve spoken with Noah Lyles about this and he said he’s closing harder (and has the data that backs it up) than Bolt in some spots. It’s just that at the start and the curve is where he loses time. What about you?
CITIUS MAG: Can you take me through that day of the 19.49 at LSU? What made it so special? From the moment you woke up, did you think something special was happening?
I had one of my pro members of my team just kept looking at me for like 20 minutes straight. Just kept staring at me for the longest time. We get in the car and he’s still staring at me because of what I just did. It was weird but I was laughing.
CITIUS MAG: When did it settle in?
CITIUS MAG: When World Athletics puts together a graphic showing where that performance ranks in relation to where someone like Usain Bolt was at your age, that’s when it puts into context why it’s crazy to so many people. When it comes to your own legacy in the sport, how are you going about writing it?
CITIUS MAG: If the opportunity ever presented itself for you to talk to Usain Bolt, is there anything you would pick his brain about?
CITIUS MAG: What happened at the Olympic final?
CITIUS MAG: You were a high schooler in an Olympic final and finished fourth. Did you leave the Olympics disappointed being that close to a medal? Anyone else would be over the moon.
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: I was definitely kind of disappointed. I didn’t go over there for no reason. I went over there to get a medal. I was disappointed but I took it as a learning experience – getting that experience of being out there with a team and I’ll just carry it to the next one.
CITIUS MAG: How many times have you watched that Olympic final?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: I don’t watch it. I’ve seen it like twice. I don’t watch it like that. Every time I see it, I skip over it.
CITIUS MAG: Is there a race in your career that you experienced that made you want to work harder?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: My final race in the Olympics. That’s the one that I was like, ‘I just have to get better after this.’ The next time I come to the Olympics, it’s not going to be the same. I made it to the final but the way that race separated, I got gapped…That’s the race. I took that one.
CITIUS MAG: Do you ever feel any pressure?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: Not at all. I put pressure on myself to make the team. My shoe company, Adidas, in my under U-20 years, they’re not putting pressure on me to make the team. I put pressure on myself to do better.
CITIUS MAG: Does the world championships taking place in the U.S. mean more to you or do you just want a medal?
ERRIYON KNIGHTON: A medal is a medal.