Sydney McLaughlin in the 400m hurdles (© Getty Images)
The promise of a chocolate bar from her dad indirectly led – or maybe it was directly? – to Sydney McLaughlin starting athletics training at age six and eventually making the US Olympic 400m hurdles team last summer at age 16. And then competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games just after her 17th birthday.
“I was six and my dad said if I won an AAU kids’ race, I would get a chocolate bar – with almonds,” the world-class talent from Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, laughed as she explained that initial motivation.
“I won that race and got a chocolate bar, so I stayed with running after that so I could get chocolate.”
McLaughlin’s rapid rise to prominence – first at the high school level, then the youth bracket and finally the highest tier of all at the Olympics – has brought her many more rewards than merely satisfying a sweet tooth.
Precociousness on display early on
Precocious from the beginning of her career, McLaughlin clocked PBs in 2014 of 53.78 at 400m and 13.34 over the 100m hurdles in her first year in high school at age 14.
Her first-ever 400m hurdles race that year timed 1:04.77. Just seven races later, she clocked 55.24 for second at the national junior championships. That time would have put her on the US squad for the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, but at just 14, she was too young for the competition.
In 2015 at age 15, McLaughlin improved to 52.59 for one lap and 55.28 to retain her US junior 400m hurdles crown. That clocking also put her on the team bound for the IAAF World Youth Championships Cali 2015 where she claimed the gold medal with a 55.94 effort.
Any serious follower of the sport knew that McLaughlin had stellar talent for such a young athlete. Yet in 2016, she surprised even herself.
First, she broke the national high school indoor record for the 400m – plus the indoor world U18 best – with a 51.84 outright PB to win the New Balance Indoor title, the leading national indoor competition for US high school athletes.
World bests, and a ticket to Rio, at 16
Outdoors at the mid-June New Balance Outdoor Nationals, McLaughlin roared to another world U18 best, a 54.46 performance that also broke the US junior and high school records. But all those superb efforts just set the table for her performance in the final at the Olympic Trials.
In the pressure-packed final, she finished strongly in the closing 100 metres to claim the all-important third and final spot on the US squad in 54.15, a world U20 record and U18 best. McLaughlin became the youngest US athletics Olympian since another hurdler, Rhonda Brady, competed at the 1976 Montreal Games just after turning 17.
Then in Rio – competing only eight days after turning 17 herself – McLaughlin placed fifth in her heat to move on to the semis where she again finished fifth, missing out on the final.
But there were no complaints.
“This has been the most unreal year of my life," she said. "My family and I talked about the Olympics from when I was young. We thought it might happen in 2020 or 2024, but not making the team when I was 16.
“That always was my goal, to make the 2020 Games, after I had competed in college. Going to the Trials this year definitely was more for experience and just to see what it was like to run in that level of competition.”
Father and brother as role models
McLaughlin had two strong role models to follow in her career. Father Willie was a 45.30 one-lap sprinter in 1983 and Olympic Trials semi-finalist in 1984.
And older brother Taylor, now 19 and in his second year at the University of Michigan, has given her notable examples to follow. In June Tyler finished fifth in the NCAA Championships 400m hurdles, won the US junior title, ran in the Olympic Trials heats, then won a silver medal at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016 thanks to a PB of 49.45. Earlier, he ran a leg on the silver-winning US medley relay at the 2013 World U18 Championships in Donetsk.
Her family helped McLaughlin overcome a period of self-doubt just before her Trials racing began.
“I felt I had a lot of pressure on me, put there by my own expectations. I had a lot of time to think about things. The races were in the evening and I would sit and think about them during the day.
“Then I went to watch Taylor run and felt the atmosphere at Hayward Field. I tried to think that it was just like any other meet. But it was on TV and all the other hurdlers were older than me, many of them professionals. And here I was only 16.
“The first day definitely was the hardest. But as the rounds went on, it got easier to manage my nerves. I thought about all the work I had done and that I deserved to be in the Trials. I just had to keep the negative thoughts out and trust in the ability that had gotten me that far. My coach, Mike McCabe, had a lot to do with that, but my family also told me, ‘You’re getting on the line and running that race’. Their support helped put me on the team.”
Taylor was, as McLaughlin said, “not only my big brother but also my friend. Whenever I got down, he would text or call me and say, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ I really appreciate him for that.
“He also warmed up with me for my semi and the final. He talked with me about the mental part of the race and tried to calm me down. He knew what it had been like to run at the NCAA and US Juniors.”
At the Games, McLaughlin battled a head cold and never looked comfortable in either of her races. Afterwards, she said: “I think my bounce was missing all week. I really wasn’t myself these past few days. I ran the best races I could and gained a lot of experience. This is just the end of my season, not the end of my career.”
Coming soon: juggling studies with sport, and more juggling itself
Far from it. There are plenty of elite competitive opportunities ahead of McLaughlin, beginning with next year’s IAAF World Championships London 2017 and perhaps the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018. While she isn’t certain which major championships she will aim for, McLaughlin still anticipates her final year of high school competition, as well as a collegiate career.
She recently announced she will attend the University of Kentucky where she can train alongside, among others, world 100m hurdles record-holder Kendra Harrison.
For now, she is back in class at Union Catholic High and enjoying one of her favorite hobbies: juggling.
“I learned to juggle from my fifth grade teacher," said McLaughlin, who can juggle three balls, or bowling pins – either while riding a unicycle. "Now, I want to get more members in our juggling club at school so we can perform at our sports pep rallies.”
Which is somehow in keeping with McCabe’s assessment of her overall athletic skills.
“I started working with Sydney in the fall of her freshman year of high school,” the coach said. “It took me about 15 minutes to realise that she definitely wasn’t an average athlete. She has been mature, mentally and physically, through it all.
“She doesn’t tend to make mistakes more than once. She listens well. We ask her to clear the hurdle a certain way, or get her toe up a little higher or her arm back farther, and she can do it. She wants to make those adjustments and that’s a special skill as well.”
Yet she still is a youngster. At the Trials, she said she had been eating healthier meals throughout 2016 to improve her general health. But after she made the team, she claimed: “As I was coming down that final stretch, all I could think about was making the team and then going out for a big cheeseburger.”
Jon Hendershott for the IAAF