Erriyon Knighton is only 18, but his name is already being spoken in the same breath as sprint legend Usain Bolt.
Track athletics phenom Knighton already has a sub-10 second time in the men’s 100m and became the first American teenager to ever run the 200m under 20 seconds, a feat he has repeated several times.
In the longer sprint distance he broke eight-time gold medallist Bolt’s world Under-20 record that had stood unbeaten for 18 years, and has also bettered the world U18 best.
The fast-rising star is a favourite to make a debut at the World Athletics Championships that will be held in July 2022 in Eugene, Oregon.
Here are the top things to know about one of America’s most promising sprinters, who finished fourth in the 200m at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.
Knighton’s first sport was football
Just two years ago, the 1.91m (6 foot 3 inch) teenager, who takes his height from his father, a former basketball player, was focused on outrunning the cornerbacks lined up against him on the American football pitch.
The wide receiver at Tampa Hillsborough High School seemed keen to pursue his sporting interests in the NFL, and several of the best American colleges with strong football programmes were keen to draft the speedy teen.
But with most team sports restricted due to the pandemic, Knighton opted to focus on his other passion – track.
“I only started running track in the ninth grade,” Knighton said in an interview with the BBC on his start in athletics as a freshman.
“Before then you could have asked me what 100m was and I wouldn’t have known. I knew nothing about track. By the end of that year, I realised that I was kind of separated from the pack and faster than most people.”
He’s a world record holder
It turned out to be a smooth switch from football cleats to spikes.
The then 16-year-old was in a class of his own as he shattered the 15-16 age group record with a 20.33 run in the 200m at the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
That race from August 2020 was also the fastest in the U.S. and a huge improvement of his personal best of 20.89.
The previous 15-16 age group record was 20.62 set by Tyrese Cooper from 2016.
The Florida native, who opted to turn professional in January 2021, was just getting started. He dashed to 9.99 seconds but with an high tailwind (+2.7) rendering his time illegal.
Despite that, Knighton had become the third high school sprinter to break 10 seconds, after Trayvon Bromell (9.99, +4.0) in 2013 and Matthew Boling (9.98 +4.2) in 2019.
Five months after that, he blew away a field that included Bromell and Commonwealth Games champion Zharnel Hughes, bettering Bolt’s World U18 best of 20.13 seconds set in 2003.
Knighton ran 20.11.
That mark qualified him for the USATF Olympic Trials where “he put on the gas as he had a world champion chasing him down”.
The 17-year-old made the final of the Olympic Trials, where he achieved several historic firsts.
He topped the 200m semi-finals with a blistering 19.91 seconds, beating world gold medallist Noah Lyles, who had trailed him in the heat again.
The mark surpassed Bolt’s world U20 record from 2004 of 19.93 seconds and also bettered the world U18 best he had run three weeks earlier.
A day later Knighton punched his ticket to Tokyo 2020 with a third-place finish in the 200m in 19.84 seconds behind Lyles and Kenny Bednarek, again lowering the world U20 record.
“I did good. I’m on the team. I’m 17. I can’t complain with that,“ he said after becoming the first high schooler since 1972 to represent Team USA at the Olympics.
Knighton has his eye on Usain Bolt’s senior world record
The young American began his 2022 outdoor season with another quick one on April 30.
He ran the fourth-fastest men’s 200m ever at the LSU Invitational of 19.49, a new world U20 record. Only Bolt [19.19], Yohan Blake (19.26) and Michael Johnson (19.32) have run faster.
After improving the junior world records several times, he is now eyeing another of Bolt’s world bests – the 19.19 he ran at the 2009 world championships in Berlin.
“I just want to keep shaving down on my personal best,” he told NBC sport.
“I want the world record. But if it doesn’t come, I won’t be really bothered about it. I’ve still got 10 years left.” – Erriyon Knighton to NBC Sports.
Erriyon Knighton: “I want to be a world champion”
Knighton was outstanding in his first major competition in Tokyo, where he just missed the Olympic podium and became the youngest teen since Jim Ryun in 1964 to represent the United States.
He finished fourth in 19.93 seconds behind the Olympic champion Canadian Andre De Grasse, silver medallist Kenny Bednarek, and bronze winner Noah Lyles.
“In Tokyo, I was kinda upset that I had lost, but I just had to think about the big picture and the long run,” Knighton who is coached by Jonathan Terry told the BBC.
“I get called young every day, I am going to be 24 in 2028, that is in two more Olympics and still kind of young. I think about that all the time.
“As I grow older I am going to get stronger and faster. I am not the perfect 200m runner, I am still learning as I run it.”
He was the third American in that race behind Lyles and Bednarek, which puts him in a good position to punch his ticket to a home championship in Oregon.
“I want to be world champion, or I want to be on the podium,” he said.
Sprint start is still a high schooler
Knighton remains focused on his studies at Hillsborough High School in Tampa.
The sprinter took a break from class when he turned pro with Adidas but is now expected to graduate later this spring.
“There were a lot of people wanting to take pictures with me at the start of the school year. I think I signed an autograph actually, it got that chaotic,” he recalled of his early days back in school.
“It has calmed down now. Now everyone just walks past me just like, ‘Hey, Erriyon’. In other schools in the area, people say to my classmates ‘you go to school with Erriyon’, but for people in my school they see me every day, so it ain’t nothing.”