By Gene Cherry
DES MOINES, IOWA (Reuters) – Whether it’s Monaco or Austin, Texas, Michael Norman wants to check out a Formula One race.
First the California sprinter has some speed work of his own to accomplish.
The world indoor 400 meters record holder, Norman will bid for national honors in the outdoor 400 at the U.S. championships/world trials beginning in Des Moines on Thursday, and some analysts are predicting it will be a fast one.
“This year Michael Norman is going to run a time that I think is either going to scare the world record or break it,” NBC analyst Ato Boldon told Reuters.
South African Wayde van Niekerk dropped the record to 43.03 seconds at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Boldon, a four-time Olympic sprint medallist, is not the only one saying Norman can go faster.
“I interviewed (2004 Olympic 400 meters champion) Jeremy Wariner last week and he said, ‘Yep he is going to be the first guy under 43’,” Boldon recalled.
“You can’t watch a guy run 19.70 (in the 200) and open his season at 43.45 (in the 400) and not think that,” said Boldon, who is also a coach.
Just 21, Norman has progressed from narrowly missing the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 200 meters as a teenager to the only sprinter in the world who has dipped under 44 seconds in the 400 meters this year.
“He’s a Ferrari,” said Quincy Watts, the 1992 Olympic champion who coaches Norman.
“To be so young, he is very mature in exactly what he wants to achieve and how he wants to achieve it.
“Mike wants the gold medal.”
Both at the Doha world championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The second would be especially emotional.
Norman’s mother, Nobue Saito, was born in Japan and already his parents are lining up tickets for the Games.
His Japanese fan base is also on the rise.
“I was actually pretty shocked to see how people recognized me, wanted to take pictures of me,” Norman said of his first trip to the Asian nation in May, when he competed in Osaka.
“It was really nice.”
He had already become the joint fourth-fastest 400 meters runner by then with his 43.45 clocking, so his acclaim was spreading.
“It was a phenomenal feat,” said Watts.
“It didn’t surprise me because of the way we train. Michael has goals that are beyond that.”
And fun with training partner Rai Benjamin, the talented 400 meters hurdler, is part of the routine.
“Benjamin is the only one in track and field that can rattle Michael,” said Watts, their coach.
“(Before clocking 43.45) Rai told Michael ‘you are finally going to race against somebody who is not scared of you’.
“Mike turned around and said, ‘You are going to false start as soon as you realize I am behind you.’
Both went on to personal bests in the race, Benjamin running 44.31.
“But I can’t run them together all the time.” said Watts. “They would go at it non-stop.”
Coach and athlete also have a special bond, both said.
“The way he describes and breaks down the 400 makes it easy for me to kind of execute what he wants me to do.” Norman said.
Many thought after Norman handed 200 meters wunderkind Noah Lyles his first defeat at the distance in three years in June, the sprinter would try a 200-400 double, at least at the U.S. trials.
It was never on the cards, said Watts, who wants Norman to become a gold medallist in the 400 first.
Maybe after the Olympics, the coach said.
Before then Norman, who enjoys both cycling’s Tour de France and Formula one racing, has a task that he so far has not been able to master.
The Californian said last winter he wanted to learn Japanese so that he could speak the language during next year’s Olympics.
“I feel off,” Norman said last week.
“I need to make a schedule. To commit myself to really learn it.”
Just like he has the 400.
(Reporting by Gene Cherry in Des Moines, Iowa, editing by Pritha Sarkar)