By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Not many high school students get the chance to represent their country in an international tournament, let alone one with diplomatic implications. But rising T.C. Williams seniors Noah and Josephus Lyles did just that, representing the United States on a team of track standouts in Havana, Cuba for the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational last month.
The brothers have risen to prominence as sprinters on the T.C. track team and have gained recognition both nationally and internationally. At the end of a junior year in which they helped the Titans win a Virginia High School League 6A indoor state title amongst other achievements, they were part of a roster of 28 junior athletes to enter for the U.S. against their counterparts from other Caribbean nations.
The event is usually held in Puerto Rico every two years, but was shifted to Cuba in part as a result of the prohibitive expense for some teams to acquire visas to the U.S. territory, and due to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014 by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. For the two brothers, it presented an intriguing opportunity.
“It was really exciting,” said Noah Lyles. “I didn’t know where they were going this year, because they only have it every two years. I was like, ‘I want to go out of the country again.’ This meet came up, and I was like, ‘Oh, here’s my chance!’ “I was kind of skeptical because there’s not a lot of people going to Cuba — our relations have been pretty spotty with Cuba — so I thought it was an interesting place to put it. I didn’t know about it. It was a new opportunity, so I thought we might as well do it.”
While the entire squad was instructed not to discuss politics or the easing of tensions while on the trip, both Lyles brothers agreed that they felt like they were part of a significant event.
“It definitely did feel like being a part of history,” said Josephus. “Not many Americans get to experience that, an organization going there and interacting with their culture. When they had the opening ceremony, they were playing the national anthems together and they had the flags and everything, and it was almost like a combination of cultures just coming back and reuniting.”
“When we went there, we didn’t feel like they have bad relations,” added Noah. “We felt like they were really welcoming. Everybody there was super friendly, and I don’t know if that’s because we’re American or what, but I definitely felt like I was in a place where I felt safe.”
The pair impressed on the track, as Josephus placed first in the 400 meters, while Noah came second in the 200 meters to complete a very satisfying outing in the face of some intense competition.
In addition, the brothers had some time to take in the sights of Havana, a city relatively untouched by Western influences since diplomatic relations with the United States ceased in 1961 and the onset of various trade and commercial embargos.
“It’s definitely old,” said Josephus. “The city itself, old Havana, they didn’t have a lot of roads and infrastructure. There was a lot of walking. There was a bunch of tourists there.
“They actually said that a lot of Americans come from Canada to visit, so they were used to Americans a bit but not really. They had a lot of gift shops and everything, which is actually really interesting, because I felt like they shouldn’t have as much as they did, because there was an insane amount of shops and people selling stuff.”
Since returning from Cuba, the brothers have stayed busy, competing at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in Greensboro, N.C. The brothers swept the 100, 200 and 400 meters at the weekend meet last month featuring some of the best junior American athletes, with Noah winning the 100 and 200 and Josephus the 400.
The pair then traveled to separate parts of the country for tryouts for U.S. junior teams. Noah headed to Oregon for trials with the U.S. team set to compete in the Pan American Junior Athletics Championships. He hopes to run the 100- and 200-meter sprints in Edmonton, Canada later this month.
Meanwhile, Josephus tried out in Chicago for the U.S. World Youth Athletics Championships team that will travel to Cali, Colombia this month. He ran in trials for the 200 and 400 meters. But even with their busy schedules and the promise of more international recognition, their trip to Cuba will stay with them as one meet that holds special significance.
“Just the fact of being in Cuba [made it special],” said Josephus. “Just going somewhere that not a lot of people go, somewhere where relations are just opening up with again and being able to compete there and being almost welcomed in and embraced in a place where Americans aren’t usually embraced. It was very fun, and a very new experience.”