Mother Nature had as much to say about how exquisite Sydney McLaughlin’s NCAA performance would turn out as anybody but McLaughlin herself, who made it as special as the cold, wet conditions allowed.
Throughout the leadup to the meet, ever since the Kentucky frosh’s astounding lowering of the World Junior Record to 52.75 at the SEC, everyone else had been talking about how fast Syd could go in Eugene. Kori Carter’s meet record, 53.21 in ’13, was in play, as was Lashinda Demus’s 52.47 AR set in ’11, and—why write off the thought?—Yuliya Pechonkina’s 15-year-old 52.34 WR was even part of the discussion.
The lively speculation was dampened, though, as early as Monday, 5 days before the final, as a forecast of cold and wet entered the picture.
On Thursday in semi III, McLaughlin strode magnificently to a 54.15 win that made her the No. 6 all-time NCAA performer with the seventh-fastest mark in meet history.
USC’s Anna Cockrell—a star in her own right as the ’16 World Junior champion and owner of a 55.14 PR from last year’s USATF when she was 19—led the rest of the field with her 56.07 semi I win from Purdue senior Symone Black (56.71). Another senior, LSU’s Kymber Payne, took semi II in 56.58 from Kansas State junior Ranae McKenzie (57.43).
For the final, that weather forecast was spot on. A drenching downpour preceded the start, and McLaughlin afterwards mentioned the hail that fell. At least the skies closed temporarily over the rain-slicked track before the gun. No one expected records. But McLaughlin brought an amazing race, nonetheless. In lane 4, she splashed to a split-second lead over Cockrell by the first hurdle, and then by hurdle 3 began to roll in earnest. Between 3 and 4 McLaughlin closed up the stagger on Cockrell, who was running about even with Payne a corridor to her outside.
After alternating lead legs—right, left, right, left, right—at hurdle 6 McLaughlin shortened up and led with her right but then snapped right back into the right-left pattern. Over hurdle 8 and turning into the straight, McLaughlin led Cockrell and Payne by more than 10m with Black in lane 3 next. Down the lane, formful over the sticks and appearing to monitor the stadium video board, McLaughlin cruised home in 53.96 to step up to No. 5 on the meet’s ATL with the No. 6 performance.
Cockrell owned the race for 2nd down the stretch to finish in 55.71 and equal her ’17 place. She ran in some 7m ahead of Payne (56.88), who was 5th last year. Black, with a 57.22 finish in 3rd, improved on her 7th in ’17.
Speaking after adding a screaming third leg on the Wildcat 4×4, McLaughlin smiled and hesitated briefly before she candidly answered the question hanging in the air along with the rain clouds: “This was my last college meet.”
Records or no, McLaughlin treasured the victory. “I think it’s always a thrill, just going into a race not knowing what can happen,” she said. “Regardless of the times that are out there, I always go into a race with the mindset anything can happen, anybody can win on that day, so it’s a matter of each day waking up and realizing I have to focus on myself in order to win the race.”
Asked how much room for improvement she sees ahead, she replied, “A ton, absolutely. I still don’t have my stride pattern down, still don’t have hurdle form down, before-the-race nerves. There’s a lot of stuff to put together and I think that once it comes together, hopefully that World Record will go.”
NCAA WOMEN’S 400 HURDLE RESULTS
FINAL (June 09)
1. ***Sydney McLaughlin (Ky) 53.96 (x, 8 C; 5, 6 NCAA);
2. **Anna Cockrell (USC) 55.71;
3. Kymber Payne (LSU) 56.88;
4. Symone Black (Pur) 57.22;
5. *Ranae McKenzie’ (KsSt) 57.67;
6. ***Nikki Stephens (Fl) 57.80;
7. Emma Spagnola (Mn) 58.61;
8. Ariel Jones (Tx) 59.92.
SEMIS (June 07)
I–1. Cockrell 56.07; 2. Black 56.71; 3. Jones 56.89;
4. ***Shante Robinson (USC) 58.24; 5. Brenna Detra (Wi) 58.47; 6. *Samantha Gonzalez (Mia) 58.90; 7. **Lakeisha Warner’ (Clem) 59.05; 8. *Shamaria Lovett (AlSt) 1:00.44.
II–1. Payne 56.58; 2. McKenzie’ 57.43; 3. Spagnola 57.54;
4. **Brandee Johnson (Fl) 57.65; 5. *Jessica Duckett (Tul) 58.22; 6. *Markeeta Thomas (Clem) 58.62; 7. *Stephanie Cho’ (WaSt) 59.06; 8. Medinah Spencer (Ok) 1:00.02.
III–1. McLaughlin 54.15 (6, 7 NCAA) (fastest NCAA Q ever);
2. Stephens 57.77;
3. **Andrenette Knight’ (Va) 57.89; 4. *Anna Runia’ (Mia) 58.65; 5. Kiana Hawn (Bay) 58.65; 6. *Brenna Porter (BYU) 58.99; 7. Amanda Jaynes (MtSt) 59.33; 8. **Birexus Hawkins (Hous) 1:00.92.