Feature21 May 2024

At peace, Norman on journey to Olympic redemption


Michael Norman at the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix (© Getty Images)

Only a year after winning his long-sought world title, one of the world’s top sprinters couldn’t run away from the sport fast enough.

Michael Norman had spent every year since he was a teenager consumed by athletics, attempting to live up to the considerable promise that first showed in 2016, when he nearly made the US Olympic team while still in high school. But that changed in 2023. Injured and frustrated by changes that had not gone to plan, the 2022 world 400m champion “completely shut out” athletics following July’s US Championships. 

He stopped training. He left the country on vacation. When the World Athletics Championships began in Budapest, he watched only the races featuring Rai Benjamin, his longtime friend and training partner, and nothing else. He didn’t watch a meeting again until the World Athletics Relays, nine months later. 

The unplanned break “gave me peace,” he said, and made him more patient and mature as an athlete. When Norman returned to training on 1 November under his former coach, Quincy Watts, he was out of shape. Yet it had been more than worth it. Taking what he called “small, small steps moving in the right direction” left him refreshed and ready to go after what he called his ultimate 2024 goal: Olympic redemption. 

“It gave me the clarity that I needed because I was on a downward spiral toward hating the sport, so I was like, I just need to take a step back, gather myself before I get into this like, point of no return,” Norman said after winning at Saturday’s USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix in 44.53. “It was really important for me to give myself the space and be a normal person for just a little bit of time.”

It wasn't Norman’s first time seeking deeper answers about his running. After the sprinter set the US high school record for 400m, he finished fourth at the NCAA Championships one year later, only to respond the following season by breaking the collegiate record and turning professional. In 2021, after fading from pre-race favourite to fifth at the Tokyo Olympics, Norman spent the next several months trying to understand what had led to an outcome he described at the time so “devastating" that the gold medal he earned for his leg on the US 4x400m team in Tokyo provided zero solace. He poured that frustration into his training in 2022 and rebounded by claiming the world 400m gold medal in Oregon in front of a raucous crowd of US fans. 

Michael Norman celebrates his 400m win at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

Michael Norman celebrates his 400m win at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© Getty Images)

Coming off that victory, Norman opted for change, dabbling in shorter sprints. As part of his move to drop down to the 100m, he switched coaches from Watts to John Smith. Yet by last May, he had felt discomfort behind a knee while racing in Doha and was never fully healthy again. After finishing eighth in the 100m at the 2023 US Championships, Norman said he had dealt with tendonitis as well as “setback after setback.”

He did not use the bye into the World Championships 400m field he had earned as the 2022 champion. He began his hard break instead, just days after the US Championships, and re-examined the sacrifices he'd made for his career.

“When I’m in competition and training mode I kind of have that mentality where track comes first over everything and that comes with all aspects of my life – friendships, relationships, just anything,” Norman said. “So, when I felt like the track side of my life was falling apart, I was like, ‘OK, I need to take a step back and just kind of be a regular human being. Catch up with some friends I haven’t talked to in years, just be a normal 26-year-old.’ And that’s what I did. I took a step back.

“I think it was really healthy for me to have that break. It got to a point where it was very tiring, especially when I wasn’t seeing the fruits from my labour. I just said, you know what? What do I want to do as a person right now?”

Norman proposed to his girlfriend. A self-described foodie, Norman ate what he wanted, or skipped breakfast. He travelled to Mexico for the first time while on vacation with high-school friends. After returning from his Mexican vacation, Norman was invited by Benjamin, the No.2 all-time 400m hurdles star, to drop by at training in Los Angeles before Benjamin left for Budapest and the World Championships. Norman caught up with Benjamin and former training partners including Kendall Ellis, “and I was like, I miss it,” Norman said. “Coach Watts came and then I was like, this is where I’m supposed to be. And that was the decision that, I’m going back here.

“It’s hard to be patient with yourself when you don’t really see a clear path of where to go or where you’re heading so, yeah, it’s been quite difficult. But if you have the right people around you, they’ll remind you of the good, the bad and they’ll help you through any situation. I think that’s what’s helped me a lot.”

It wasn’t his only homecoming. Norman would also be going back to the 400m. His reasoning?

“It’s just not worth the risk to jump down into those shorter events, especially in a year like this just because if you don’t execute and you don’t perform the way you want to, or the way that people expected … things don’t look good,” he said. “It’s safer and less of a risk for me to be competing in the 400m, which I still enjoy just as much.”

His 2024 season has also not gone necessarily as smoothly as hoped, despite running a 44.21 clocking on 4 May that puts him at No.3 this season. What he called “body-type issues” limited how much he could sprint between January and May, and they – along with last season’s injuries – are why he called managing his health the theme of his year. That, and redemption.

“It’s quite a journey,” he said. “It’s exciting.”

Andrew Greif for World Athletics

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