Given its unique demands on technique, endurance, and speed, many consider the 400m hurdles one of the most challenging track and field events. After exploding out of the starting blocks, athletes must sprint 400m while propelling themselves up and over 10 hurdles positioned evenly around the track.
At 21 years old, Sydney McLaughlin is already the fastest woman in the history of the event as she begins her Olympic campaign on Saturday morning in Tokyo.
McLaughlin earned the world record at the US Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon in June. Blazing hot temperatures (topping off at nearly 110 degrees Fahrenheit) resulted in a five-hour delay to one of the most anticipated races of the meet, where McLaughlin faced 2016 Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad, the previous record-holder. But the wait was worth it for McLaughlin. She crossed the finish line in 51.90 seconds, bettering Muhammad’s record (set at the 2019 World Championships) by 0.26 seconds. Realizing her momentous accomplishment, McLaughlin’s mouth gaped as she crouched on her knees.
“I felt immediate excitement and overall gratefulness,” she said. “I owe it all to God, my family and my team. I’m still in disbelief, but it’s truly just faith, trusting the process, and seeing my hard work along with the gift of God being put into action.”
McLaughlin, who also holds numerous age group world records and was a two-time recipient of the Gatorade’s National Female Athlete of the Year award, will now attempt to secure another title: Olympic gold medalist. She will have the opportunity to do so in a rematch with Muhammad scheduled for 4 August. It’s a race both athletes are eagerly awaiting.
After congratulating McLaughlin on her record-breaking win, Muhammad said: “It’s going to be a battle in Tokyo for sure.”
The Tokyo Games mark McLaughlin’s second Olympic appearance. In 2016, at 16 years old, she became the youngest athlete to make the US Track and Field Olympic team since 1972.
“It’s an honor in and of itself to be able to go to the Olympics for a second time. I am so excited and grateful, and I’m definitely going to continue to focus on training and being the best I can be,” said McLaughlin, who comes from an athletic family. Her mother ran in high school, her father was a semi-finalist at the 1984 Olympic trials in the 400m, and her brother, Taylor, finished second at the 2016 Under-20 World Championships in the 400m hurdles.
In Rio de Janeiro, McLaughlin’s Olympic journey stopped in the semi-finals, where she placed fifth. This year, she is five years older, stronger and wiser, and the pandemic helped her gain a renewed focus.
“Those first couple of months being stuck in the house, I was like, ‘Who am I doing this for?’” she said.
Her outlook shifted, however, as she became more involved in her faith.
“My goals are different now,” she said. “A lot of my life was trying to prove something, which is an endless cycle that will never fulfill you. My gifts are not to glorify myself. When I stand on the podium, I give the glory to God.”
Even with this newfound meaning, training in Los Angeles during the pandemic presented its own challenges. When the city shut down, McLaughlin was forced to get creative with her workouts, which meant sneaking onto tracks and running on highway medians. She also traveled with her team to Arizona to get a month’s worth of consistent training. Despite this unconventional approach, the delayed Olympic games worked in her favor.
“The extra time for me was a blessing,” McLaughlin said.
The additional year enabled McLaughlin to make key changes, including switching to coach Bobby Kersee, the husband and former coach of Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Kersee also trained McLaughlin’s previous coach, Olympic gold medalist Joanna Hayes, and Florence Griffith Joyner, who holds world records in the 200m and 100m races and is touted as the fastest woman of all time.
Under Kersee’s direction, McLaughlin focused on her form and running shorter hurdles courses to prepare for June’s Olympic trials. The tactics worked. Race after race, McLaughlin bettered her personal records and made history. From 3 April to 9 May, she shattered her personal best in the 100m hurdles four times – lowering her time to 12.65 seconds. And in the process, at the Bryan Clay Invitational on 16 April, McLaughlin became the first woman to finish the 100m hurdles in under 13 seconds, the 200m hurdles in under 23 seconds and the 400m hurdles in under 53 seconds.
“It was really cool getting back to the shorter hurdles,” McLaughlin said. “It took me out of my comfort zone, and I could quickly see a difference in how I run the 400m hurdles.”
Kersee has pushed McLaughlin to try new techniques, like taking 14 strides in between hurdles instead of the typical 15, a change McLaughlin implemented during her world-record run.
McLaughlin’s coaching adjustment means she can also learn from one of her running role models, Allyson Felix, whom Kersee also coaches. And there is much to discover from Felix, 35, who is tied as the most decorated female track and field athlete and is the only one to win six Olympic gold medals.
“I’m getting a lot of experience and sucking it in,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin looks up to Felix, who recently made her fifth Olympic team, and the feeling is mutual. Earlier this year, Felix nominated McLaughlin for the TIME100 Next list and said: “I train alongside Syd every day, and what I notice the most is her tremendous potential and not just as an Olympic athlete. She has the potential to become the most outstanding 400m hurdler of all time, yes, but, more importantly, Syd has the potential to impact lives. That is her greatest strength and her greatest opportunity.”
McLaughlin has influenced others through her life off the track and initiatives with her sponsor, New Balance. In May, she was a prominent face of New Balance’s ‘We Got Now’ campaign, which celebrated ways that athletes, ambassadors and consumers were embracing “the now” and not letting the pandemic’s uncertainty derail their goals.
“Everyone is anxious and waiting to get back out there,” McLaughlin said. “The campaign is trying to get people to still be active and stay motivated, even if they are stuck inside, and I really hope we were able to.”
In addition to encouraging others, McLaughlin has created her own YouTube channel. There she showcases a more personal side of “Syd the Kid” and taps into some of her other passions, like food and fashion. In one video, which includes cameos of her Goldendoodle Laylay, McLaughlin allows her 18.7K subscribers to get ready with her during quarantine.
“I’m not just one of their athletes,” McLaughlin said. “They’re helping me tell my story in a unique way that doesn’t feel altered or forced.”
The next part of McLaughlin’s story will take place in Tokyo with the fight for gold against Muhammad.
“I think we push each other to run our best when we’re competing, so to do that on a bigger stage in front of the world is an amazing opportunity,” McLaughlin said.
But no matter the outcome, McLaughlin will be satisfied. She has a goal that transcends medals and records.
“I see myself impacting the lives of others by living by example through my actions and kindness,” she said. “Beyond being a great athlete, I want to be known as a good person of strong faith and integrity.”