By Katherine Hapgood | [email protected]
Three T.C. Williams High School graduates will compete on the world stage this month at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Tynita Butts-Townsend, class of 2009, will vie for a medal in the high jump. Noah Lyles, class of 2016, will contend on the track in the 200 meters, which he won during the trials final. Troy IsLey, class of 2017, will duke it out in the boxing ring as a middleweight.
While they all came through Alexandria and are representing the U.S. at the highest level of global athletic competition, all three athletes have vastly different stories of how they arrived at the Olympics.
Tynita Butts-Townsend: Unsigned and unbothered
For Butts-Townsend, making this year’s Olympic team was “nothing shy of a miracle,” she said. Last year was full of challenges for Butts-Townsend. Due to the pandemic, her sponsor at the time, Puma, dropped her, she developed depression and gained 20 pounds. Butts-Townsend also didn’t have a place to train.
“I’ve been jumping fences, I’ve been sneaking onto tracks, and I haven’t had a consistent place to high jump since 2019,” Butts-Townsend said.
Since 2019, Butts-Townsend has also suffered from arthritis in her left big toe and in her left knee, as fallout from when she tore her ACL at the end of her college career. Even with all these challenges, she’s “in the best shape of [her] life” going into the Olympics, she said.
The challenges didn’t stop there for Butts-Townsend. Her qualification for the Olympic track and field team is surrounded by controversy as a result of the convoluted rules and regulations around Olympic athletes.
During the trials, she placed 14th and did not make the high jump final. However, since the second and third place high jumpers in the trials did not have the Olympic standard, 1.96 meters, they did not qualify for the team.
Based on USATF official Olympic qualifying rules and the International Olympic Committee, when competitors qualify for the Olympic games but do not have the Olympic standard, the next athletes in line for the team qualify by virtue of their World Athletics World Ranking position.
There were two high jump positions to be filled, so the American women high jumpers ranked one and two were offered spots on the team. ButtsTownsend is the second ranked American woman high jumper and is ranked 21st on the 2019 World Athletics World Rankings. Due to the circumstances of the delayed Olympiad and the inability to qualify during the usual season, the qualification period for track and field was from June 30, 2019 to April 4, 2020 — the original qualifying period for the 2020 Olympics — and from Dec. 1, 2020 to June 29, 2021. The additional qualification period of time was added due to the pandemic.
Butts-Townsend’s high jumping journey has been tumultuous in many ways. Her career at East Carolina University ended with a second-place finish at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Championships – and a torn ACL. At the time, Nike was scouting her, but then dropped her after the injury, Butts-Townsend said.
She has competed in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympic Trials, and was third at the 2019 U.S. National meet, with a 1.92-meter jump. For the most part, Butts-Townsend has run unattached to any major sponsors. She was signed for part of 2019 and 2020 by Puma, but she will compete unsigned at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Because of these unusual circumstances, Butts-Townsend has faced backlash for her position on the team.
“At this point, it’s become a smear campaign, and people are pretty upset about my selection,” Butts-Townsend said.
The “smear campaign” and “people antagonizing [her on social media],” resulted in Butts-Townsend leaving social media for the time being to “protect [her] peace and focus on [her pre-Olympic] training,” she said.
Through all the controversy, she still has the support of her family and friends – and her high school track and field coach, Jim Garner.
As a track and field athlete at T.C. Williams, now renamed Alexandria City High School, Butts-Townsend was trained by Coach Garner, the distance coach.
“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would’ve had the career performance that I did in high school,” Butts-Townsend said.
Throughout her time at T.C. Williams, Butts-Townsend grew close with Garner.
“He’s basically like a dad to me. … He believed in me when other people didn’t,” she said.
The two continue to keep in touch from time to time and even had an emotional FaceTime call in recent weeks “where we shed a couple of tears,” Butts-Townsend said. With the Olympics nearing, Butts-Townsend plans to participate in one last competition, on July 18 at the Olympic Training Center in California, to “work off the cobwebs and get back in the groove of things,” she said. But, also, she hopes to achieve the Olympic standard of 1.96 meters to stop some of the talk about the controversy of her position on the team and refocus the conversation on her actual athletic ability.
“I just want to shut it down. I just want to shut them up,” Butts-Townsend said.
Noah Lyles: Alexandria’s golden boy
After narrowly missing qualifications for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Lyles, a runner who has sprinted into the national spotlight in recent years, qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Lyles has run the fastest 200-meter time of 2021, at 19.74 seconds, according to World Athletics.
He’s also won gold in the outdoor 200-meter at the 2014 Junior Olympics, when he was 16 years old, won gold in the 200-meter and 4×100-meter relay at the 2019 World Championships. Lyles also broke the 300-meter indoor world record in 2017, clocking in at 21.87 seconds.
According to one of his high school track and field coaches, Michael Hughes, Lyles has always wanted to be an Olympian.
“I doubt Noah has changed his [Olympic] dream since he was 12 years old,” Hughes said.
Lyles has been a standout track athlete since he started attending Alexandria City Public Schools as an eighth grader in 2011. A couple of weeks after Lyles started running in eighth grade, Hughes “knew he was special.”
As talented as Lyles was in high school, Hughes, as a former college track and field coach, knew that wear and tear from high school track would “come back to haunt [Lyles]” if he intended on continuing on as a college or even professional athlete. Hughes said he formulated a special training plan for Lyles and his brother, Josephus Lyles, to minimize burnout.
Hughes was careful not to enter Lyles in too many races even though “whatever [race] he entered he would take the points in,” Hughes said, “[It’s] tempting when you get someone with that kind of talent to go to every race in the country and run them until they get hurt.” But the T.C. Williams coaching staff was focused on the potential longevity for Lyles’ track and field career.
Hughes talks to Lyles “periodically,” and Lyles typically comes back to the high school annually to talk to the track and field team, take pictures and sign autographs.
“He’s really a kids’ hero,” Hughes said.
Troy IsLey: Alexandria Boxing Club’s legacy
After a tough loss at the Olympic Trials in December 2019, IsLey can finally say he is an Olympian after qualifying during the Olympic Trials in June 2021.
“I was devastated two years ago when I lost at the trials, and I thought my Olympic dream was over with and I thought I wasn’t going to be an Olympian,” IsLey said.
IsLey has been boxing since around the age of 10, and now, at 22, he is one of the first American professional boxers heading to the Olympics. Some of his career highlights include winning gold at the 2014 National Junior Olympics, winning gold at the 2016 and 2017 Elite National Championships, and coming in third at the 2017 Elite World Championships and the 2019 Pan American Games.
IsLey’s roots go back to the Alexandria Boxing Club, which operates out of the Charles Houston Recreation Center and is where his father suggested that he start boxing.
As he often got in trouble at school and was fighting frequently, his father’s suggestion was a way to channel some of his energy, IsLey said. Even from a young age, boxing “just felt natural” and the community “felt like a family,” he said.
IsLey still boxes for the Alexandria Boxing Club and represents the club and city on the world stage: He wears the letters “ALX” proudly on his shorts.
“I’m thankful for the people [in Alexandria] that support me,” IsLey said. His success is also a testament that “a person can make it out,” especially with the encouragement of family and friends, and the Alexandria Boxing Club community, according to IsLey.
“I want to show the kids that if you stick with something, go through the ups and downs, don’t quit, something positive is definitely going to come out of it,” IsLey said.
Butts-Townsend will compete in the qualifying round of the high jump on Aug. 5, and the high jump final is on Aug. 7. Lyles will compete in round one of the 200 meters on Aug. 3, with the semifinals later that day and the final on Aug. 4. IsLey will compete in qualifying rounds starting on July 25, with the quarterfinals starting on Aug. 1 and the semifinals starting on Aug. 5. The final middleweight boxing match takes place Aug. 7.