A 17-year-old sprinter from Tampa, Fla., is the youngest Olympic track competitor for the U.S.
On the Olympic track, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton is a sensation. He broke Usain Bolt’s under-18 record in the 200 meters in May and surpassed Bolt’s under-20 record in June, and he beat reigning world champion Noah Lyles, 24, in two races at the Olympic trials.
But at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla., where we’re both rising seniors, he’s just another student, just Erriyon. He walks through the halls, tall and slim and boyish. He dresses in Adidas gear because the company sponsors him, but he generally doesn’t bring a lot of attention to himself.
Erriyon’s friends say he’s funny and likes to mess around. They still laugh about the time he almost burned down the house trying to make funnel cake out of pancake batter.
“He’s a quiet, normal, regular high school kid,” his friend Nigel Richardson said. “And he cares about people. He would never want to see nobody down.”
Erriyon, who will run in the 200 meters Tuesday (Monday night in the U.S.), is the United States’ youngest male track athlete in the Olympics since 1964. He began running track just three years ago, when Hillsborough’s football coach asked him to join the high school team.
Jordaan Bailey, a football teammate, said he knew Erriyon had track potential.
“In his first catch of the game, he scored,” Bailey said. “I don’t think he got touched.”
In August 2020, Erriyon ran the 200 at the Junior Olympics in 20.33 seconds. His track career took off. He started giving interviews to the media and struck what he said is a six-figure sponsorship deal with Adidas, part of which goes to help his mother, Shamika Knighton, pay the bills. He gave up his high school and college athletics eligibility to sign the deal but wants to attend college eventually, with thoughts of studying medicine.
In FaceTime conversations during the Olympic trials, Erriyon was confident about how well he was going to do, Bailey told me, even though he was racing some of the fastest men in the world. That made sense to Bailey.
“He’s always been calm,” Bailey said. “He never folds under pressure.”
I got the same impression when I interviewed Erriyon for our high school paper earlier this year as his performances kept improving and his Olympic hopes started to become real.
“I’m just being,” Erriyon told me. “Chilling, like I’m a normal person.”
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Over the summer before my junior year, Erriyon placed first in the 100 meter and 200 meter Junior Olympics. I decided then I would write about him to include in our Us Magazine that winter.
He was very hard to get in touch with, but eventually I pulled him out of class and he agreed to an interview. When we finally sat down to talk after he canceled the interview a few times, it took hours of pulling information out of him to get more than one word answers. But it was worth it. We ended up being pretty good friends. He told me his career goal was to make it to the Olympics, and I never expected anything less from him. What I didn't expect was that he would go off and make team USA only four months later.
I realized my position here. There were articles about him everywhere, from the athletic to NPR to NBC Sports, that linked to my story on hhstoday.com! So I pitched the idea to The New York Times. They agreed to let me write it, only 400 words. Erriyon was obviously busy, and I decided I would get more from his friends anyway, so I showed up to the football locker room during their summer training and interviewed ten rising seniors and graduates about everything they could tell me about Erriyon.