The youngest Olympian from the United States hopes to make track history Wednesday morning by winning gold at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
On Tuesday morning, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, a student in the International Baccalaureate program at Hillsborough High School, finished first in the men’s 200-meter qualifier with a time of 20.02 seconds.
Now, his family, friends, teammates and coaches in Tampa will be watching to see if he can do it again in the finals.
It’s quite an accomplishment for a kid who was reluctant to join his high school track and field team.
Instead, Knighton had set his sights on football, joining the Hillsborough High Terriers football team as a freshman.
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Joe Sipp, the offensive line coach on for the football team, is also the school’s track and field coach. He first noticed Knighton’s speed on the football field and approached Knighton about joining his track team.
Knighton hesitated. He’d never run track before and, frankly, he was already making a name for himself as a four-star wide receiver, getting offers to play for Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and the University of Florida.
Sipp said he finally gave the teen an ultimatum: “I’m not asking anymore; I’m telling you. You’re running track. There are no ifs ands or buts about it.”
That was three years ago.
Knighton went on to win every high school race he entered and then began competing in national events.
Between high school meets, he joined My Brother’s Keeper Track Club, an all-boys track team established by coach Jonathan Terry in Riverview in 2015, and began training with Terry, who has coached 48 National Championship/All-American Titles recipients.
After Terry encouraged the teen to test his mettle at national youth track competitions, Knighton went on to win multiple gold medals at the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics and attracted the attention of Adidas, which gave Knighton a professional contract in January, when he was just 16 years old.
Then, on May 31 at the American Track League’s Olympics showcase in Jacksonville, Knighton broke the record for the men’s 200-meter race, a record set by three-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt in 2003. Bolt ran the race in 20.13. Knighton did it in 20.11.
That race propelled Knighton into the national spotlight. A month later, he secured his place on Team USA, running a 19.88 in his semifinal heat at the Olympic trials and becoming the youngest track and field competitor in the Olympics since 1964.
Sipp said the teen has all the qualities it takes to be an Olympic champion — determination, the willingness to work hard, a positive, can-do attitude — and, of course, speed.
“Knighton is a freak of nature,” said Sipp in an interview. “The kid is unbelievable.”
“I think this is probably one of the most historical performances ever,” Terry said during a news interview. “I knew he was going to come up here and do a good job just through his preparation, through our training. But for him to come up here and achieve a personal best every round to advance to the finals, break Usain Bolt’s record three consecutive times, it was just completely amazing.”