I didn’t really plan anything out for this blog post, but I just gotta scribble down some thoughts and see if they still make any sense in one or two years time.
I wanna talk about Michael Norman, the 20-year old sprint sensation who may very well be the most naturally gifted quarter-miler of all time.
He has Michael Johnson’s speed, he has the stamina and the strength of Butch Reynolds, and he has the endurance of Wayde [van Niekerk]. – Quincy Watts
Norman’s name first came onto my radar in 2016 when he comfortably won the World Juniors in a new Championship record of 20.15 (+1.2 m/s).
Here’s that race:
Now I have to admit that — while I do follow the competition with great interest — I never really care too much about World Junior Champions unless they put out some outrageous performance.
Norman’s win was certainly impressive, but I honestly didn’t think too highly of him in a literal sea of America’s talent. Besides, history is full of incredible potentials who didn’t live up to their full potential. In other words, world junior champions rarely go on to make their mark in the senior ranks.
But I now have a sneaking suspicion that Norman is on another level, and his recent performances can’t be ignored anymore.
Anyway, after about a year — around the time of the 2017 World Championships in London — his name resurfaced in one of my Twitter conversations about the 400m and Wayde van Niekerk. One of the commenters mentioned Norman and said that he would be the next world record holder. I was a bit perplexed at the thought, but now I’m starting to become a believer as well.
43.03 by van Niekerk is certainly far out there, but Michael Norman just ran 43.61 at 20 years of age. That’s currently the 11th fastest time in history, which already makes him number 6 on the all-time lists.
400M ALL-TIME TOP 10 1. 43.03 Wayde van Niekerk (2016); at 24 years, 1 month 2. 43.18 Michael Johnson (1999); at 31 years, 11 months 3. 43.29 Butch Reynolds (1988); at 24 years, 2 months 4. 43.45 Jeremy Wariner (2007); at 23 years, 7 months 5. 43.50 Quincy Watts (1992); at 22 years, 1 month 6. 43.61 Michael Norman (2018); at 20 years, 6 months 7. 43.65 LaShawn Merritt (2015); at 29 years, 2 months 8. 43.70 Fred Kerley (2017); at 22 years, 1 month 9. 43.72 Isaac Makwala (2015); at 29 years, 9 months 10. 43.74 Kirani James (2014); at 21 years, 10 months
And he is the youngest of the bunch. The 400m is a notoriously demanding event, both physically and mentally, and it can take years to master the tactics.
Norman is just beginning to enter what seem to be the best years for sprinting in general. Michael Johnson, LaShawn Merritt, and Isaac Makwala are the exceptions on our list, but it is generally the case that sprinters will produce their lifetime bests in their mid-twenties. For example, Usain Bolt’s prime era was in between 2008 and 2012 when he was 21-25 years old.
So everyone that is in front of Norman was older than him when they ran their personal bests, which bodes well for his chances of going even faster in the upcoming years.
Norman recently clocked a 43.06 split in the 4x400m relay, which further cements my belief in his abilities to improve in the individual 400. And yes, relay splits can be significantly faster due to a flying start, but only two athletes (Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner) were ever able to provide a 43-flat split.
The Generation That Will Break the 43-Second Barrier?
Wayde van Niekerk proved that it is possible to go sub-43, as I discussed in one of my previous articles. Minus reaction time he ran 42.85, which is — incredibly — even faster than the fastest relay split in history (between 42.91 and 42.94 by Johnson).
But Wayde picked up an unfortunate injury at the tail end of 2017 when he tore his ACL in an exhibition Rugby match. It’s not a career-threatening injury, but one that comes with a possibility of preventing him from ever matching his former highs.
It’s a shame that we probably won’t see him compete in 2018, just when things are heating up even more in the 400m. In recent years, the event has been more stacked than ever before in its history, and everyone seems to be getting faster while van Niekerk is watching from the sidelines.
Steven Gardiner, Fred Kerley, Isaac Makwala, Akeem Bloomfield, Nathon Allen, Emmanuel Korir, Abdelleleh Haroun, even the prodigious Kirani James seems to be making a great comeback after an illness in 2017.
And now Michael Norman, the youngest, and seemingly as talented as anyone that has come before him …
Just yesterday he ran his first race as a professional when he lined up for the 200m at a Diamond League meet in Paris. He won in a personal best time of 19.84, running into a -0.6 m/s headwind. Wayde van Niekerk has the exact same 200m PB (albeit with the following wind of +1.2 m/s), which means that Norman already has the theoretical speed reserve necessary to match the 400m WR.
I mentioned some incredible athletes in this post, but I believe that, among the current crop of athletes, only van Niekerk and Norman are capable of running 43.0 seconds. I think that Steven Gardiner is also a stellar talent, especially due to his height and formidable stride length, but I’d give the edge to the American at the moment.
So, what I meant to say when I started writing this blog post is whether this belief in Michael Norman is warranted. I’m all too aware of the possibility that his progression suddenly halts due to any number of circumstances.
But he seems to have a good head on his shoulders and I wish him all the best.
Žiga P. Škraba