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Tampa’s Erriyon Knighton is Tokyo bound. So what do his classmates think?

While his peers focus on summer jobs and college decisions, Knighton prepares to make his historic Olympic debut.
Erriyon Knighton, center, finishes third in the men's 200-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials last month in Eugene, Ore. Noah Lyles, right, celebrates after winning ahead of Kenny Bednarek, left, and Knighton.
Erriyon Knighton, center, finishes third in the men's 200-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials last month in Eugene, Ore. Noah Lyles, right, celebrates after winning ahead of Kenny Bednarek, left, and Knighton. [ CHRIS CARLSON | AP ]
Published Jul. 20

Seventeen-year-old Erriyon Knighton is always running somewhere.

Last month, he ran his way onto Team USA for the 200 meters, becoming the youngest male track athlete to represent the United States in the Olympics since 1964. But back home in Tampa, he races through the hallways of Hillsborough High School, desperate to make it to class on time.

“Whenever I see him, I’m always calling him ‘Five Stars,’ because he’s always running everywhere or speed-walking somewhere,” said Mercy Ogunsola, one of Knighton’s classmates at Hillsborough. “Probably because he was running late.”

Ogunsola, 17, is a rising senior working at Adventure Island this summer. She met Knighton in the hallway at school through mutual friends her sophomore year. The two friends own the same pair of Beats headphones, which Ogusola said she loves to tease him about.

“Oh, you’re rich,” she taunts, to which he responds, abashed, with “No, no.”

Despite his incredible success in just three years of running — signing with Adidas in January, first breaking Usain Bolt’s under-18 200-meter record in May and making the U.S. Olympic Team in June — Knighton manages to stay extremely humble, Ogunsola said. If she or many of her other classmates were in his position, Ogunsola says, she doesn’t think they’d be quite as gracious.

Caleb Pierce, one of Knighton’s football teammates who is spending his summer bouncing from one college football camp to the next, said the track star knew how to talk smack on the field and in the locker room but was pretty modest overall.

“I definitely would not say he’s humble,” the 17-year-old rising senior said with a chuckle. “He always told me he could play quarterback (Pierce’s position) and all this and that. … But he never walked around like he was Hollywood. He was cool. He always kept the same friends, never ghosted anybody.”

Both Pierce and Ogunsola were happy and excited for their classmate when they heard he made the team. Pierce watched the race on YouTube after the fact, not surprised to see his wide receiver cement his place on the world’s biggest stage. When you sign with Adidas at 16 and break the GOAT of your sport’s age group record, greatness like this is sort of expected, Pierce said.

For Ogunsola, Knighton’s performance stirred something more inside her. The only words she could push through her lips upon hearing the news were, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.” If her friend could pick a professional track career, despite procuring interest from major Division I-A football programs like Florida and Alabama, and accomplish all this in just three years, who’s to say she can’t do anything she sets her mind to?

“I don’t even watch the Olympics, but this year I’m gonna watch it, because I know someone going,” she said. “I can’t even wrap my head around it. It’s crazy.”

Joe Sipp, Hillsborough’s offensive line coach and head track coach, first recognized Knighton’s true potential. They met during summer training before Knighton’s freshman year. He ran past the other boys “like they were standing still,” Sipp said, and never seemed to get tired. Knighton was “a freak of nature” with the kind of talent you can’t coach.

Having reached the pinnacle of his sport at just 17, long before male athletes reach their physical prime, and after only three years of experience, it’s safe to say the possibilities are endless for U.S. track’s newest boy wonder.

“I don’t think he’s even touched the tip of it yet,” Sipp said of Knighton’s prospects. “If he continues to put in the hard work and dedication, I think he can do some big things. I think he can be an Olympic champion one day.”