At 17 years old, American sprinter Erriyon Knighton is not the youngest competing athlete at this year’s 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But the Florida native is the youngest man to compete for the U.S. track team in a Summer Olympics since 1964.
And after an impressive performance in the 200-m finals on Wednesday, he’s solidified his place as one to watch in the track and field world. While Knighton narrowly missed his goal of a medal—he finished fourth with a time of 19.93, just .19 shy of Noah Lyles, who took bronze—he did so after only running track for a few years.
Knighton was initially recruited as a football wide receiver for Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla., but when he was a freshman, his coach asked him to join the track team, too. He decided to focus fully on track by the age of 16, going pro with an Adidas sponsorship and turning down offers from football programs at the University of Alabama, the University of Florida and Florida State University. “Even though I love football, after what I just ran, I have to give track 110%,” he explained after taking gold at the 2019 AAU National Junior Olympics. “I think that is what’s best for me and what my future holds.”
“I was a little fast, but I got faster,” he told his high school newspaper about his recent few years as a rising force in the track world. “I wanted to be better than everyone else,” he said. “Some people don’t know what’s going on—they think I dropped out of high school, but I be here everyday,” he added. “They’re looking from the outside in. At the end of the day, they really just help me. I feed off of stuff like that.”
In 2021, he added to that: “I know I can maximize to the next level,” he told Track and Field News. “I’ve got to see what I can do. I want to win against the top athletes, but I know they’re not going to take it easy on me, so I’m going to have to train real hard.”
His training has apparently paid off: he is the current record holder of the world under-18 and under-20 titles in the 200-m; he set that new record during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in June of this year, with a time of 19.84 seconds. That means he bested legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s under-20 record, too. Bolt has been a point of comparison since he first arrived on the scene “because he’s tall like me,” as Knighton has said. (Bolt is 6’5″; Knighton is 6’3″.)
Team USA’s Kenny Bednarek, who took silver in the event, said after the race, “He’s going to be dangerous in the future.”
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