IT’S A CLASSIC QUESTION: which would you rather have, a gold medal or a World Record?
Every athlete in our sport—regardless of talent—has considered it. A rare few get to do the comparison in actuality. “It’s a hard question,” confirms 400 hurdler Dalilah Muhammad, whose World Record of 52.20 at USATF pairs well with her ’16 Olympic gold in the event. “I think I said in the past the medal, because it wouldn’t be taken away. You can always be the gold medalist. Even on top of just having a gold medal, I was the first American to ever get a gold medal in that event. That’s something that won’t ever be taken away.
“The World Record, it feels really good, but it’s something that I feel is fleeting.”
Not to say the record wasn’t important: “Before I started my pro career, I didn’t really know that time would ever be possible. And every year I kind of dropped a little bit here and there. I knew it would be difficult to achieve, but it just felt so close and in the grasp of the possible that it just means the world to me to actually have done it.”
Yet after Muhammad crossed the line in Des Moines, there was no jubilant celebration. She stared at the clock, her reaction muted. “Before the time was adjusted [from the initial 52.17], I knew that was a World Record. I just was waiting to see if the time would change, if they would adjust it to a time that was over it. I was just waiting to see if it was real. I needed an announcement.” And yet she felt an element of shock as well, because she says the race did not feel like she had imagined a record race would feel.
“There are times when you kind of know you’re running fast, but it wasn’t the most perfect race.” On a scale of 1 to 10, she gives it a 7 on technique. “My steps were off and I just felt like my hurdle technique coming home was off. But I do think it was one of the most gutsy races I’ve ever run, and for that I give it a 10.”
The final 100 showcased Muhammad’s immense power. “You work on it in practice and you work on it in races but you never know how you’re really going to finish and how much energy and how much stamina you’re going to have. So you test it out on race day and it was there and I was so happy about that.” (Continued below)
The record could not have happened without the extraordinary foundation she built over the winter with coach Lawrence Johnson, with whom she has trained in Northridge, California, since ’16. “This year I have been very, very consistent in my workouts,” she says. “I can count on my hands, honestly, how many bad workouts I would say that I’ve had.” One key workout told her she was ready: 8 hurdles in under WR pace. She says, “I guess a lot of us can probably run World Record pace to 8 hurdles and it’s always about the finish part. But I remember hitting those times and still feeling like I could finish the full 400. They really told me I was ready. “Me and coach Johnson really work hand-in-hand. I think he really values my opinion and what I have to say about what I’d like to do that day. We’re definitely a partnership out there on the track.”
A couple of weeks down the road Muhammad says that she and Johnson still haven’t had much of a conversation about the record. “We both couldn’t put it into words and I think we’re still having difficulty doing so. But we’ve got to get back to focus on Worlds, so we really haven’t had a moment to just absorb it and take it all in.” She adds, “He definitely sees room for improvement. That’s probably the most exciting factor for him. I ran 52.88 [in the ’16 Trials], and I remember thinking that was the most perfect race I’ve ever had and I had absolutely no idea where I could improve.”
It’s been more than two decades since Muhammad first found her way to the hurdles. When she was 7 growing up in Queens, her first club coach, George Taylor, made sure she tried everything. “His thing was, ‘I’m going to teach them everything and see what they excel at.’ He taught us how to high jump, shot put, throw the javelin, long jump.” But it was in running the 80m hurdles that she found her place. She wasn’t chasing records or gold at that point. “I definitely just did it for fun. To be honest, it wasn’t until high school that I started dreaming of wanting that.”
As a prep at Cardozo High (Oakland Gardens, New York), she won the Nike HS Nationals in a PR 57.09 and the World Youth (U18) gold later that summer.
At USC, while she never won a Pac-12 or NCAA title, she was an NCAA finalist three times. Her PR at graduation was 56.04 but she didn’t make it out of the heats of the ’12 Olympic Trials. Seven years later, at 29, she is on top of the world. What’s left for her to accomplish? “I’ve never won a world gold, so I definitely want to do that,” she says. “I just want to ride out my career for as long as I can, to be honest. Every year I’ve gotten better. I generally feel stronger. I have a better knowledge of the sport and my event.
“I feel like I still have more to give. I’m just trying to run until I hit my full potential and I don’t think I’ve reached it yet.”