A RACING DERVISH from a track family whose career skein of competitions — most of them victories — began with an age-group 100-meter win at age 6, hurdling phenom Sydney McLaughlin is cranking it up again. And paired with a new mentor, coaching legend Bobby Kersee, after a layoff of unprecedented proportions and no races in ’20.
Used to streaking from high to new-high season after season, McLaughlin is bullish about the delay of the Tokyo Olympic season, her competition break and her restart. “It’s exciting,” says the precocious 400 hurdler, who now has super-vet Allyson Felix as a training partner in Kersee’s elite LA-based group. “I think having this extra year has been, personally for me, a help in kind of just mentally grasping everything, especially with the coaching change. It’s given me a lot more time to really break down my race and get into all of the intricate details that I haven’t had time in the past to really focus on. So personally I’d say that the extra time was a blessing, for sure.”
Of her coaching change last summer from Barcelona Olympic 100H gold medalist Joanna Hayes to Kersee, a builder of champions for decades, McLaughlin says, “I’m really excited about what we have going. The chemistry seems really great, and yeah, he absolutely loves this event. So it’s been really fun to just learn from him and to have these practices where we can really break down my race and move forward with it.”
Notably, Kersee himself coached Hayes as a UCLA collegian and through her pro career. Kersee also ran the 400H in his own competitive days and guided Andre Phillips to the Seoul ’88 title 33 seasons ago. His new project is to mint gold on the women’s side in Tokyo.
McLaughlin — who famously reached the Rio semifinals just days after her 17th birthday — wound up her first pro season, ’19, taking WC silver in an unforgettably epic duel with Dalilah Muhammad and carrying a baton for Team USA on the gold medal 4×4 squad. She had run 13 races on the year, likely a career-low tally and certainly her most selective season since she exploded on to the national scene as a prep frosh in ’14.
Then came pandemic 2020. McLaughlin canceled her first scheduled race, a 500 at the New Balance GP in January, citing muscle tightness. Next, as we all know, “Everything kind of shut down around the end of March,” she remembers. “Before then we were really just kind of focusing on staying healthy and just training through, especially after not running at the [New Balance] Grand Prix.
“Over the summer, I think that’s really when I decided to make that switch in coaching. So I didn’t feel comfortable racing in between that process. And now that we’ve really settled into things, we’re in a good place to be able to do that.”
This February McLaughlin ended her 16-month racing drought at the New Balance Grand Prix, with her first 60H outing since her prep soph season 6 years ago.
Lest you considered her 8.56 clocking in 8th an unpropitious run for McLaughlin — whose PR in the event is 8.17 from that long ago last previous run at the distance — rest assured she doesn’t see it that way. For the run on Staten Island, she hurdled leading with her less-preferred left leg — the goal being improved proficiency with either limb for the long hurdles. “It’s been great,” she says, “to work on my hurdle technique; also the speed behind the race.”
Anyone who has followed Kersee over his career knows he is renowned for working the seasonal long game early in important years and McLaughlin’s use of New Balance as a training exercise fits that philosophy like a glove. With a fierce rival in Muhammad, who set World Records in their two ’19 meetings — USATF and in Doha — McLaughlin is targeting WR performance levels this summer.
Calling the projected McLaughlin–Muhammad meetings at the Olympic Trials and in Tokyo “must-watch finals” requires a colossal penchant for understatement.
“It’s an honor, honestly,” McLaughlin says of being paired with her adversary as the two fastest of all time (Muhammad 52.16, McLaughlin 52.23). “I think to be part of something that’s so watched and so anticipated is motivating. There’s always nerves and hype and everything on the side, but I think just to be able to be a part of something that is constantly pushing me to be my best is really an honor.
“Having to go into these races where it results in a World Record, it pushes you to run even faster. So it’s a really amazing experience to go out there and not know what could happen on any given day.”
Per McLaughlin, her move to Kersee’s tutelage was effected with neither sturm nor drang. “You know, I’d seen Bobby out at the track a couple of times while we were [training] at UCLA,” she says, “and he was helping for a while just kind of with the hurdling technique. And I think the chemistry kind of clicked. Then we felt that it was a good decision with the Olympics being postponed, if I was to want to switch coaches that that was the year to do it. So it kind of just all worked out perfectly in terms of making the switch. And yeah, we all still see each other at the track and it’s always good vibes. But I think just in terms of my race and really breaking it down, as someone who ran the 400 hurdles, Bobby has a lot of knowledge in it.”
Toiling in training alongside Felix — the 35-year-old mom with 6 Olympic golds (individual and relay) and 11 WC titles — is “honestly great,” McLaughlin says. “I learn so much every day at practice, just being out there and watching how she handles things and learning what I can from her. So it’s been a really great experience being around both her and Bobby, and just at a young age, being able to soak up as much as I can as she’s at the end of her career.”
On the track with the long sprint great, she says, “For the most part, the workouts are the same. When we get to the more technical, hers is more sprinting, mine it’s more hurdle based. So the core of our training is definitely the same but we do have days where we’re more focused on our specific events.”
McLaughlin, coached in her one-and-done all-conquering ’18 collegiate season by Edrick Floréal and most recently by Hayes, is adjusting well to another Kersee trademark. He only reveals the details of a training session as his charges work through it.
“I personally like it that way,” she says. “I don’t like knowing what we’re doing beforehand. But yeah, there are some days where it’s really quick and some days where it just keeps on going. So it’s always a surprise when we get there.”
Ask McLaughlin about any tinkering under the hood Kersee is up to with her long hurdles race model and she’ll tell you, “I think overall just having a race plan. You know, understanding how many steps in between the hurdles, working on form, working on the start, things that in the past I really haven’t done as much as just doing the training and then going out and running and seeing what happens.
“So we’ve really broken down the race. Not so much my race, but just the 400 hurdles in general and understanding step patterns and takeoff and landing things — the little details that in the past maybe I haven’t focused as much on.”
McLaughlin — now in her eighth season under the spotlight since taking 2nd at the ’14 USATF Juniors to Shamier Little — is still just 21, a young adult. As such, the past COVID-strange year has also been a time of self-discovery.
“I really do appreciate this time,” she says, “not only to grow on the track, but so much more off the track. You know, understanding who Sydney is away from track really brings a lot more purpose to every second that I spend on the track.
“I’ve discovered a lot more who I am and understanding that track is not who I am, but it’s what I do. So this time for me has been very important, just being able to differentiate the two, um, so that I going into this understand that this is just something that I love to do. And it doesn’t define who I am.”
Away from the oval McLaughlin has indulged her creative side. “I’m very big into arts & crafts,” she says, adding that she loves to paint: “So normally after they opened up things [after the initial lockdown], I’d go to Target and find something and do something with it. In the crafts section. If not that, then normally it’s just online shopping or reading.”
On the oval when those summit meetings with Muhammad arrive this summer, McLaughlin says, “I think anything can happen at this point. You know, we saw two World Records — she broke it twice back in 2019. So I think it definitely can be lower than what it is right now.”