AFTER A SEASON-OPENING 52.83 that she ran in Nashville three weeks earlier, Sydney McLaughlin knew she was ready for the 400H at the Trials. Not just ready — but ready for something big. “I knew,” the new WR holder says, “just seeing some of the mistakes I made in that race and still being able to have that time, that once we cleaned it up and got my stride patterns right, that we’d be able to do something really fast.”
All winter and spring, she and legendary coach Bobby Kersee had focused on the shorter hurdle events. She explains, “For a lot of our season, I was doing the 100 hurdles. People didn’t understand because they didn’t see what it was translating to in our practices for the 400 hurdles. I knew right away it was making sense. And as time progressed and the strength started to build, it definitely reflected that we could get to this point. Bobby definitely knows how to put things together when the time comes.”
Still just 21 — her birthday is 3 days before the Tokyo final — McLaughlin came to Eugene very, very ready. Her first-round 54.07 looked frighteningly relaxed. Her semi the next day took only 53.03 and still looked “easy,” a characterization she took issue with: “I’m not going to say it was easy — it’s always hard work. But I definitely felt pretty smooth and excited because I think there’s a little more there.”
A ”little more” is understatement. McLaughlin, who won the silver medal in Doha behind Dalilah Muhammad’s WR 52.16, this time crushed that standard by 0.26. Take note: this is not the “Syd the Kid” that qualified for the Rio Olympics at the tender age of 16. Nor is this the then-just-turned 20-year-old who put herself at No. 2 on the all-time list with her 52.23 at the ’19 Worlds.
McLaughlin has been remade in more ways than one. Look at the video of her in Qatar — 16 strides between hurdles, mostly leading with her right leg. She leads with her left at hurdles 8 and 10 — stuttering her steps before those hurdles and losing ground to Muhammad each time.
Aficionados of timber topping love to speculate on the improvements full-lap hurdlers can make if they can learn to lead with either leg smoothly. That is one of the keys to reducing the number of strides between hurdles. No more frantic recalibration of stride length as they approach the barrier, hoping to save enough room for a decent clearance with the best leg.
It also means that they can run more freely and flexibly in a peak championship performance, when sometimes the adrenaline causes them to lengthen their strides only to have to check their speed to approach the hurdle as they have in training.
The McLaughlin we watched in Eugene had that flexibility down. She did not stutter-step. Her left leads looked every bit as smooth as her rights. And most importantly, she says, she hit the stride count she and Kersee were aiming for. “The goal was to go 14 through the first 4, which I did, and then my stride pattern just kicked in and I went 15 the rest of the way, which is really what we wanted to do.”
She couldn’t keep herself from staring at the clock in her final strides. She knew then it was going to be big. Then she saw the number, “51.90.” Her reaction: “Omigosh! It’s one of those moments that you dream about, think about and replay in your head. You don’t know when you’re going to be able to put it together. I knew from the moment I woke up today, that it was going to be a great day. And I think just trusting that process, was just the final ‘I did it’ moment and I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life.”
Yet while McLaughlin explains her technical transformation clearly, she adds that she doesn’t feel that’s the biggest change she’s brought to the track in ‘21. She sums up her apprenticeship as a professional with the words, “I was growing into my own person.”
Then she adds, “I think the biggest difference this year is my faith. Trusting God and trusting that process, knowing that He’s in control of everything and as long as I put the hard work in, He’s going to carry me through. And I really cannot do anything more than give the glory to him at this point.”
She also credits Muhammad. “Iron sharpens iron,” she says of their so-called rivalry. “People can call it whatever they want to call it. It’s two great athletes pushing each other to be better. There’s no animosity, there’s no hard feelings. There’s just two people trying to be their best. We wouldn’t be able to have these World Records go back and forth without one another.”
While the race went off some 5 hours later than originally scheduled, McLaughlin doesn’t think that hurt her. “You can’t control what happens to you,” she says, “you can control how you respond to it. It definitely was a little bit of a throw in our plans but we were prepared for that. Bobby’s always talking about Muhammad Ali. You have to be ready for that left hook, and we definitely were. I just was relaxing, making sure I stayed hydrated and nourished.”
One line of McLaughlin resonates after the press conference: “This is what our year’s been really about, just getting to this point.”
What point is that? The World Record in the Olympic Trials? Or the knowledge that she has mastered the technical challenges enough to go even faster in Tokyo?