THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
If all goes to plan Sydney McLaughlin will be just 3 days short of her 22nd birthday when she competes in the 400 metres hurdles final at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. The plan, of course, is far from straightforward, not least the fact that the 2020 games have been delayed by a year and all the possible restrictions that are still being arranged for the event have yet to be decided. Then she still must navigate her way through to the final itself. For now, though, the plan is in place and her achievements so far are evidence that she could well deliver on the grandest stage of any athlete’s career.
Raised in New Jersey, McLaughlin has an athletic pedigree. Her father Willie competed at the Olympic trials in 1984 in the 400 metres and reached the semi-finals, while her mother Mary was a decent runner in school. After finding her niche event in the sprint hurdles she started to gain respect and fast times at an early age, in fact she would have been able to compete in the 2014 IAAF World Championships except she was a year too young. A year later she did compete in those games and won gold in the 400 metre hurdles, and by the end of 2015 was the world youth and junior best in that event.
Fast forward, quite literally, to 2016 and the US Olympic Trials. She eased through to the final after winning both her heat and semi-final then finished third to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Her time got faster in each race, to an eventual 54.15 seconds, a new world junior record. She was the youngest athlete to make the US team since 1980, when Carol Lewis and Denean Howard qualified for the boycotted Moscow games. In Rio she made the final and raced to a fifth-place finish in her semi-final.
Soon after she went to the University of Kentucky, and the records kept on tumbling. It did not matter if it was indoor or standard outdoor events, McLaughlin excelled. The first time she attempted the 300 metres indoor event, at an Arcadia Invitational event in 2017, she broke a 16-year-old record by running 38.90, which beat the previous time by over a full second. In 2018 the world junior record over 400 metres indoors was hers after posting a 50.36 and then at her first SEC championships she broke the NCAA record, running 52.75. Her personal best was set in October 2019 in Doha, Qatar when she ran the third fastest time in history, 52.23.
As we enter the final month of build up to this year’s games, McLaughlin is already a superstar, but she has set herself new goals and wants to take on legendary status as she looks to athletes that inspire her. Long before she was born, Edwin Moses took the world by storm in the same event. He was unbeatable. People would watch in awe at his amazing running style, sometimes tuning in just to see if he could be beat! Back in 1984 he was the main man, and in a time when endorsement deals were starting to make athletes big money and instantly recognizable across the world, Moses was at the top of his game. He won gold in that summer’s Olympics in Los Angeles. His unique style meant he was taking a calculated 13 strides between hurdles, and that set him apart from the rest. His frame and stamina were something that no one could match.
McLaughlin has looked long and hard at how she can improve, During the long pandemic-enforced lay off during 2020 she studied Moses’ style and realized what she needed to do. “Its such a rhythmic race,” she told BBC Sport, “normally people fatigue, start to take more steps and switch legs. No woman has run it with 15 strides between each hurdle. That’s what a perfect race looks like.”
Her coach, Bobby Kersee, has taken her a little out of her comfort zone, going back to an event that she tried early in her racing. “He is all about putting me in uncomfortable situations,” she said. Kersee set her up for 100 metre hurdles. The barriers are a little higher and come at you much faster getting McLaughlin used to approaching them at a quicker pace. “This means we can work on those mechanics, so that when I open up in the 400 metres hurdles, the hurdles just feel like nothing,” she explained.
McLaughlin is one of the favorites to bring home gold from Tokyo but she has a rival, and one that’s in the same team. Dalilah Muhammad is the fastest woman in the event, and even though she is a teammate they couldn’t be any more different. A decade older, raised across the river in New York, Muhammad is the one to beat. “We don’t communicate that much, but we definitely know that when the two of us step on the track together it is going to be a fast race. Really it is two people pushing each other to be the best they can be. In the same way that I wouldn’t have a 52.2 without her, she wouldn’t have a 52.16 without me,” McLaughlin told the BBC.
Life after Tokyo will be different if a gold medal is achieved and the new 15 step stride is realized, “The 400 metres hurdles are awesome, but there are definitely opportunities to run different events, which is something I love to do,” said McLaughlin. For now, mark August 4 in your calendar - the final of the 400 metres hurdles could well be one of the highlights of this year’s Olympics.