After ‘devastating’ failure, former 400-meter champ Michael Norman seeks winning form

Michael Norman’s counters are covered with empty water bottles tracking his daily intake.

His journal is filled with logs of carbs and protein eaten, power cleans and squats, and reps completed.

His mind is the definition of one track. A self-proclaimed foodie, car enthusiast, and thrill seeker who once rode a jet ski from Long Beach to Catalina and back, Norman is also the same person who recently paused when asked how he distracts himself from his work and then said, he was still trying to figure out that part.

In 2013, as a freshman at Vista Murrieta High, Norman stunned his parents by sharing his goal of sprinting in the Olympics — just three years later. He didn’t do those games. However, his father Michael remembered the vows as a pivotal moment in his son’s life, as he devoted himself to an all-consuming search for information and improvements that Norman, now 24, believes made him one of the fastest people ever will do 400 meters and are at the top of the most important podium finishes in athletics.

That’s why 2021 has been so confusing for Norman in the months leading up to next week’s US Championships in Eugene, Oregon, and a possible return trip there in July for the World Outdoor Athletics Championships.

The runner, hungry for answers, has few to explain why last season went so wrong.

In the midst of the Tokyo Olympics, when the US men’s sprinters were unusually battling for a medal, one of the biggest mysteries was Norman. The US 400-meter champion and Tokyo favorite faded to fifth in 44.31 seconds, nine-tenths of a second slack from his personal best. He said his struggles began long before he started the race on an unfamiliar track, eight, and finished in an unfamiliar style, as if dragging an invisible weight for the final 150 yards.

“The most difficult moment in Tokyo for me was probably the first two or three hours after the race,” said Norman. “I just remember sitting on drug tests and just getting beaten. it was heartbreaking [a] devastating moment for me.

“I can’t tell you exactly what went wrong last year. I start my first day of training and I’ve been fighting from day one. I do not know why. My mind wants me to train extremely hard and get better at training, but my body just wasn’t responding or working. I felt like I had a breakup, like I wasn’t in my body. It was like the weirdest feeling of the whole year.”

When Norman’s mother, Nobue Saito Norman, was traveling to her native Japan to watch the Olympics, his Florida father saw a party on TV organized by one of Norman’s sponsors. They don’t talk much on race days, other than a text message or two reminding Norman to have fun, so his father wasn’t sure how his son was feeling ahead of the Olympic finals. He understood it anyway, if he didn’t see what he called his son’s two most recognizable qualities, his speed and his smile.

Steven Gardiner wins the gold medal in the 400 meters ahead of Americans Michael Norman and Michael Cherry at the Tokyo Olympics.

Steven Gardiner wins the gold medal in the 400 meters ahead of Americans Michael Norman and Michael Cherry at the Tokyo Olympics.

(Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

“He’s not afraid of any situation,” the father said, “but when he came to Tokyo last year, I knew he wasn’t himself. He doesn’t even sound like himself because he usually laughs. He was super serious and you knew he didn’t have it. But I’ll give it to him, he risked everything.”

The day after his fifth place finish, Norman met with his coach Quincy Watts, former 400-meter and USC standout coach, who told him not to linger on the disappointment as the 1,600-meter relay was still a chance bid on gold. As Norman powered past two leaders in the final 150 metres, his 44-second second leg gave USA a sizable lead and eventual gold – but that was no consolation for Norman.

“A great moment for ourselves,” Norman said, “but for me it was mixed feelings. It’s like I got a gold medal but failed at the same time. How am I really feeling right now?”

His parents reminded Norman that he had joined a small club of gold medalists. His father hopes his appreciation for the achievement will grow over time.

“He calls this gold medal a ‘participation medal,'” his father added. “He was determined, not silver, not bronze, but he was determined [400-meter] Gold and when he didn’t get it he was really devastated.”

Norman’s eight months since returning from Tokyo have been filled with “everything,” he said in May, from disappointment to frustration to envy. And lately something else: the return of his smile and his speed.

In late May, two months before the World Championships are held for the first time on US soil, an Olympic-quality competition, Norman won the Prefontaine Classic in 43.60, erasing one of the best fields of the year on wet track in his fastest time since his personal best of 43.45 in 2019. Former Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson, whose competition record Norman has usurped, praised Normans “master class” Race on Twitter.

“This is the first race this year where I felt like the hard work, discipline and consistency I’ve worked on this year is finally paying off,” said Norman.

It was the return of a rhythm Norman knew well despite his youth, the pattern of setbacks and comebacks that marked his career.

Just weeks after graduating from high school in 2016 as the national record holder in the 400m, Norman defeated three-time Olympian Justin Gatlin in the 200m at the Olympic track and field trials. His encore didn’t live up to expectations — a fourth-place finish at the NCAA championships to cap a freshman season at USC that he says was held back by injuries and the transition to college.

Michael Norman, left, and his American teammates celebrate winning the gold medal in the men's 4x400m relay.

America’s Michael Norman, Michael Cherry, Rai Benjamin and Bryce Deadmon celebrate winning gold in the men’s 4x400m relay at the Tokyo Olympics.

(Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

The next year, he broke the collegiate 400 record and was named the top collegiate athlete in track and field. In 2019, his first year as a professional, he failed to qualify for the 400m final of the World Championships while sustaining a hamstring injury. He started training 2020 like, “I thought I was on fire.” Then a pandemic wiped out the season.

What makes this version of a comeback different, he said, was that he’s had a clear answer to what went wrong in the past, but didn’t offer such clarity last year.

“Something didn’t work,” said Dunford Rodill, an athletic trainer who has worked with Norman since 2016. “And I think it was a mystery to everyone.”

Norman didn’t run 400m in 2020 and said he lost some of his “feel” for the distance last year. Norman’s father said his son moved twice last year, missed some training time due to a close COVID contact and a minor injury, but acknowledged something was wrong after watching his first ever race in 2021. Norman’s US title sparked celebrations; the winning time, less.

At the Olympic Games, “a lot also happened mentally; a lot of pressure,” said his father. He had a backstory made for prime time that seemed poised to take him into the mainstream with a win. Norman’s mother was one of Japan’s top teenage sprinters growing up southwest of Tokyo.

Without a clear sense of what needed to be fixed, Norman and Watts opted for a “back to basics” strategy for training, Rodill said. Norman said he became even more diligent. He’s adding to a list of Los Angeles restaurants he wants to try. He dreams of skydiving for the first time. But both interests, he knows, will have to wait until after his season.

“He’s committed to doing the things that are within his control to achieve his goals,” Rodill said. “Commitment, that’s the biggest thing.”

Michael Norman celebrates winning the men's 400m dash during a 2019 Diamond League meeting in Belgium.

Michael Norman celebrates winning the men’s 400m dash during a 2019 Diamond League meeting in Belgium.

(Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Norman’s father said, “In the first month of fall training he said, ‘I’m feeling better than last year all year.’ And it’s starting to show.”

While completing 10 pull-ups was a challenge for Norman last year, he said he’s been regularly doing sets of 15 with extra weight this year. On another key measure of his strength, the squat, he improved his rep max by 50 pounds.

As of early June, Norman remained the only man in the world to break 44 seconds this season, making him one of the favorites to take the individual gold at an outdoor World Championships or Olympic stage that has eluded him. After praising Norman’s Prefontaine Classic performance, Johnson later wrote that he and 100m winner Trayvon Bromell have been impressive but “have yet to produce championship winning performances. Another opportunity to change that this summer.”

Norman balks at any mention of Johnson, saying he only cares about hearing Watts’ thoughts.

“I will forever remember the feelings and emotions I went through at the Olympics and after the Olympics, even during fall training the following year, until I get another shot, another opportunity,” Norman said.

When a representative of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris handed Norman letterhead, a marker and a request to write a message to himself in 2024, he quickly scribbled at the Prefontaine Classic where other athletes had paused and said he knew for sure what to write. He smiled as he posed with the paper, underlining the first line three times.

Remember 202one. Have fun too. After ‘devastating’ failure, former 400-meter champ Michael Norman seeks winning form

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