The extraordinary Olympic journey of Michael Norman

TOKYO >> Michael Norman Jr. is particular.

“Very, very particular,” he said.

Even when it comes to rental cars.

So when the fastest American quarter-miler this century was in Monaco for an awards ceremony in December 2018, he just had to rent a Ferrari 480 Spider.

The color?

“Red, of course,” Norman said laughing.

“I drove it through the tunnel,” he continued referring to the iconic part of the Monaco Grand Prix F1 course. “Drove along the harbor, drove to Nice.”

But when asked how fast he drove Norman, an F1 fanatic, took the Fifth.

“I can’t say, can’t say,” he said. “Fast.”

That’s another thing Norman is particular about — he doesn’t talk about speeds.

So Norman, the heir apparent to Lee Evans and Quincy Watts and Michael Johnson and a decades-long lineage of American 400-meter runners who have dominated the event at the Olympic Games, steadfastly refuses to join the widespread speculation within the sport that the former Vista Murrieta High and USC standout will be the first person to break 43 seconds.

“Not. At. All,” Norman said. “Not at all, seriously, I think our mentality is more of really focusing on training and perfecting our race and becoming the best Michael Norman you can be as opposed to chasing history.”

Said Watts, the 1992 Olympic 400 gold medalist now head coach at USC who continues to coach Norman, “We’ll let track and field decide that.”

Few, however, would be surprised that when the Olympic Games 400 final is decided, Norman, 23, crosses the finish line at National Stadium just past 9 p.m. local time on August 5 he will not only be Olympic champion but have broken the world record of 43.03 South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk set in winning the Rio de Janeiro gold medal.

A victory in Tokyo would cap a five-year journey that has seen Norman narrowly miss making the 2016 Olympic team as a high school senior, overcome injuries and doubts at USC to win four NCAA titles and set the collegiate 400 record, flirt with the world record in 2019 only be eliminated in the World Championships semifinals in Doha, undone by a lingering hamstring injury.

When Norman won the Olympic Trials 400 last month in Eugene his father, Michael Norman Sr. was struck by the expression on his son’s face.

“It was something I had never seen before,” the elder Norman recalled. “There was sigh of relief after he crossed the finish line. Like ‘finally.’”

Norman comes to the Olympic Games with two additional burdens. As the child of an African American father and a Japanese mother, Norman is viewed by the host nation as a native son. He is as recognizable in Japan and as he is in Eugene, Tracktown USA, his rock star status confirmed the moment he stepped off a plane in Osaka in 2019, hungry, sleep-deprived, hidden away in a hoody, when a Japanese TV reporter stuck a microphone in his face and asked for an interview.

“Pretty crazy to me,” Norman said laughing. “I was like, ‘I’m not really presentable right now.’”

As a teenager, Norman had the choice of competing for the U.S. or Japan. He chose the country of his birth. The Olympics, he said, are “a way to represent my culture and her culture at the same time.”

Norman, along with fellow sprinter Noah Lyles and hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, are the faces and future of American track and field, viewed by many as saviors of a sport that at times seems incapable of saving itself.

“Happy being described as the savior of the sport,” Norman said. “It is humbling. (But) you only feel as much pressure as you apply to yourself. In terms of the pressure, do I feel obligated to live up to these hypes? I don’t feel obligated to live up to them. I would like to live up to them.”

Which brings us back to his refusal to engage in the sub-43 discussion.

“He’s going to be the first man under 43,” said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist and now an NBC analyst. “It’s not matter of if, it’s only a matter of when.

“He can take it a lot faster than we’ve ever seen it, that’s for sure.”

The sub-43 speculation started almost as soon as Norman crossed the finish line at the Mt. SAC Relays in April 2019, his time of 43.45 the fourth fastest in history. No one had run that fast that early in a season. And he ran the time without the type of sharpening work usually associated with such a mark.

“It was all gas,” Norman said.

In the ensuing two years, Norman has improved his speed. Last summer he was clocked in the 100 in 9.86, becoming the second man to break 10 seconds in the 100, 20 in the 200 and 44 in the 400.

Questions about the world record to Norman’s coaching team—Watts, former USC head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, Trojan assistant Joanna Hayes, herself an Olympic hurdles champion — are met with shrugs and the slightest of telling grins.

“That’s the goal,” Smith Gilbert said.

“We have goals to be the best Michael Norman you can be versus chasing history,” Norman said. “Of course we have goals of doing special things, things that have never been done. But I think when you start focusing on chasing records all the time then you start losing yourself and what’s more important.”

When pressed in an interview at his downtown Los Angeles apartment about what time he thinks he could run, Norman smiled

“Something crazy fast,” he said.


Michael Norman celebrates with his mother Nobue Saito Norman after winning the Men’s 400 Meter Final on day three of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 20, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

For years there’s been a running debate between Norman Sr. and his wife Nobue Saito Norman over where their son gets his speed from.

“I say it’s me,” Norman Sr. said. “Wife says, no, it’s from her.”

The pair met on the track team at Los Angeles Valley College. Norman Sr., a native of Chicago (“big White Sox fan” his son said), had already done a stint in the Navy. Saito Norman had set national junior high school sprint records in Japan.

Their son, however, wasn’t pushed into the sport by his parents so much as he followed his older sister Michelle, later a sprinter and jumper at UC Irvine, into it. When he ran in his first race in fifth grade he was so skinny the only compression suit that would fit him was a girls XS.

While his parents didn’t coach him, they were more than willing to offer advice.

“My mom would micromanage me like crazy,” Norman said laughing. “I would have a meet like Arcadia (Invitational) and wouldn’t get home until 11 at night and she would say you need to take your ice bath and I hated it so much.

“She was always, ‘Eat your vegetables.’ Make sure you have your protein before you go to bed. But it was good micromanaging. It helped me become the athlete I am today.”

It was Norman Sr. who first suggested his son, previously a short sprinter and long jumper, try the 400.

“Dad (said) you need to run this,” the younger Norman said. “Tried the 400 a couple of times before high school, hated it, hurt a lot, didn’t really like it, didn’t want to commit to it.”

But he had a change of heart when he broke 50 as a freshman.

“Changed my mindset for my entire career,” he said.

Michael Norman of Vista Murrieta High, is pictured in 2016 with the medals from the high school state and Masters meets. (Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

The summer between his freshmen and sophomore years, he grew from 5-8 to 6-1. As a junior he ran the fastest 400 ever in high school only competition—45.19. By his senior season he was not only the nation’s top prep quarter-miler but a legitimate contender for a spot on the Olympic team.

But he failed to make it out of the first round in Olympic Trials 400.

“That first round 400 in Eugene was an eye-opener,” Norman said.

“LaShawn Merritt was in my heat,” Norman continued referring to the 2008 Olympic champion. “I thought just follow them, you’ll be OK.  That was where I made my mistake I should have gone into the race (thinking) you have to run to beat me.

“I think I was probably star-struck and not really coherent. I gave them too much credit and undermined myself. After I got knocked out, I was like, ‘You know what? Never again.’ I don’t care who’s in this race.

“Made me realize you can’t give people credit. They have to earn it. My first (race against professionals) and I gave them credit, too much credit and respect and I paid the price by not making it to the next round.”

Norman took that attitude into the Trials 200, where he just missed making the team, finishing fifth in 20.14, just .14 behind the third and final spot on Team USA.

“First and foremost he learned he can actually run with those guys,” Norman Sr. said.

But as a Trojan freshman he was plagued by a series of injuries—shin splints, a stress reaction, hamstring issues.

“I came into my freshman year with the weight of the world on my shoulders. This guy is going to be amazing, NCAA champion as a freshman, you know, yada, yada, yada,” Norman said. “That pressure got to me and then as I was training and I was getting injured it was tough because I didn’t want to follow, I didn’t want to be forgotten in the track world, I didn’t want to be oh, this guy was such a great high school athlete but what happened to him in college? That was my fear. It took a lot of growing up as myself and learning who I was as an athlete to overcome those challenges, to realize college is much different than high school and you can’t keep doing the same things because that’s not going to work out. Your training program has changed. You’ve changed as a person and the amount of stress you put on yourself has changed.”

When he injured his hamstring, Norman asked Smith Gilbert if he could redshirt.

She responded with a firm no. Instead Smith Gilbert asked him, “How are we going to get through this together?”

“Hamstring, oh my gosh, I thought the world was going to end,” Norman said. “I’m done. I was so frustrated, so angry. At that point I was like, ‘Did I make the right decision coming to USC? Should I have gone to another school?’ All that doubt came into my mind. When I got to finally compete it was a sigh of relief. Almost PR’d in the first race and I’ve barely trained. That means this program is pretty good. It hasn’t even tapped its potential.

“Did it force me to grow up? Of course. The biggest lesson I learned from that is you can’t run away from your problems. You have to approach them head on.”

USC’s Michael Norman flashes the “Fight On” signal following his race at the Mt. SAC Relays in April, 2018. (John McGillen photo/courtesy of USC)

The next winter he won the NCAA Indoor title, running the fastest 400 ever indoors, 44.52, then later coming back to anchor USC’s 4×400 relay to a collegiate record and world best. Norman duplicated the feat that spring at the NCAA Outdoor meet, winning the 400 in a collegiate record (43.61). Shortly thereafter he signed a professional contract with Nike.

Norman followed up his 43.45 at Mt. SAC in 2019 by knocking off Lyles in the 200 at the Golden Gala, a Diamond League meet in Rome. His time of 19.70 was the 12th fastest in history, faster than the personal bests for all but two Olympic champions (Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and Johnson), including Carl Lewis (19.75), Italy’s Pietro Menna, the longtime world record holder at 19.77, and Tommie Smith (19.83).

It was also his first win against Lyles, who also graduated from high school in 2016.

“There’s always been this hype between us like, ‘Oh, Noah vs Michael,’” Norman said. “I couldn’t see it as rivalry yet because I hadn’t beat him. So it was nice to finally put a number on the board so it could finally be a real rivalry.

“We both push each other to be better athletes every day. In terms of the rivalry I think it’s great for the sport, great for everybody.”

But as the season wore on, Norman began having hamstring issues. He was second at the U.S. Championships later that summer.

“Going into Doha I was worried, mostly for my health,” he said.

Thirty meters into the Worlds semi, Norman felt the hamstring give and decided not to push it, finishing last in the race and not advancing to the final.

“I was just frustrated with myself and how things played out,” he said. “I had big expectations for myself and just for the year to end the way it did was extremely frustrating.”

On the long 16-hour flight home, Norman pulled out a notebook and divided the season into three categories—good, bad and needs improvement.

The season, he said, “started out on Cloud 9, then eeeh, didn’t go the way I wanted to. I felt the season didn’t progress the way it should, in an upward pattern, not a downward pattern. I was pretty upset about that.”

But after meeting with Watts he put 2019 behind him.

“I just kind of flushed it down the toilet,” Norman said. “What’s in the past is in the past. I’m just focusing on the challenges that present themselves today. I’m more focused on how I can be great today?”


And so now Norman’s focus is on the challenge of winning in Tokyo.

He greeted his Olympic Trials victory last month with relief, but also with the knowledge his journey was not complete.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s been five long years, so to come in here and check one more box off my dream list is a long time coming. But only half the job is done.”

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