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World-record holder Sydney McLaughlin embraces being part of new generation of track athletes

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/29/2021 Tyler Dragon
a baseball player holding a racket: Sydney McLaughlin poses with gold medal after winning the women's 400m hurdles in a world-record 51.90 during the US Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field. © Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports Sydney McLaughlin poses with gold medal after winning the women's 400m hurdles in a world-record 51.90 during the US Olympic Team Trials at Hayward Field.

A then 17-year-old Sydney McLaughlin stepped on the track in Rio de Janeiro as the youngest U.S. track and field athlete since 1976 to compete at the Olympics. The teenage phenom had enormous potential but little expectations. She finished fifth in her semifinal heat and failed to advance to the women’s 400-meter hurdles Olympic final.

What a difference four, plus an additional year, can make.  

The 21-year-old is now the only woman in history to run under 52 seconds in the women’s 400-meter hurdles and one of the preeminent faces of the new generation of track and field athletes.

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“It’s a crazy time, so much change. I think it’s really important and really cool to be a part of it. It’s kind of just this new wave and kind of this new generation,” McLaughlin said. “It’s kind of pushing the boundaries as much as possible.”

McLaughlin pushed the boundaries further than any woman has ever done before in her main event. The 5-foot-9 runner broke the women’s 400-meter hurdles world record at the U.S. Olympic trials when she crossed the finish line in a blistering time of 51.90 seconds.

It’s been a steady climb to world-record holder status for McLaughlin. In 2018 as a freshman at Kentucky, McLaughlin broke the NCAA record in the 400-meter hurdles posting a 52.75 at the SEC Championships. She later won gold at the NCAA championships in the event, running a 53.96. After her freshman season at Kentucky, McLaughlin forfeited her remaining collegiate years of eligibility and turned pro.  

In 2019 at the World Championships, McLaughlin finished second in the women’s 400-meter hurdles behind fellow American and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad.

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Muhammad’s dominated the women’s 400-meter hurdles in recent years. She had been the world-record holder in the event since 2019. Muhammad had the record until McLaughlin bettered her time at this year’s trials.

“I definitely saw it coming,” Muhammad said of McLaughlin’s record-breaking race at this year’s trials. “Absolutely saw it coming.”

While McLaughlin’s trajectory has been going up since she turned pro, she credits her superb times this year to the coaching change she made last summer. A coaching swap that probably wouldn’t have been possible if the Olympics weren’t postponed one year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

McLaughlin switched from former Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles and a volunteer assistant coach at USC Joanna Hayes to veteran coach Bob Kersee.

Kersee, who is a volunteer assistant coach at UCLA, trains nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix. The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach has also trained his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, sister-in-law Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers, Dawn Harper Nelson and other former Olympic gold medalists.

Sydney McLaughlin standing in front of a crowd: Sydney McLaughlin defeats Dalilah Muhammad to win the women's 400-meeter hurdles in a world-record time of 51.90 seconds. © Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports Sydney McLaughlin defeats Dalilah Muhammad to win the women's 400-meeter hurdles in a world-record time of 51.90 seconds.

“The time that was given, the extra year, allowed me to make a coaching change that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make if the Olympics were last year. I was just grateful for the time to really be able to sit down and look back on 2019 and my season and make some decisions and choices that if the Olympics would’ve happened (in 2020) I probably wouldn’t have been able to make,” McLaughlin said.

“I don’t know if I would’ve been in the same situation as I am right now," she added. "I am really grateful for the time. Even though the situation and the circumstances are unfortunate. Just looking at it and what it allowed me to have, taking and making the most of it. I’m just really grateful to Bobby (Kersee) and Allyson (Felix) and their help this past year.”

McLaughlin confessed that she’s a sponge when around Kersee and Felix. The coaching and knowledge she’s accumulated has paid dividends thus far. Her improved speed and technique were on full display during her world-record race.

“I do learn a lot from those who have gone before me. It’s really cool to be around Bobby (Kersee) and Allyson (Felix), people who are veterans in this sport at this point. It’s been amazing to soak in other people’s knowledge and really implement it and put it into how I conduct myself and how I run my race.”

As McLaughlin prepares for her second Olympics and first as a world-record owner and prohibitive favorite, she’s cognizant of her rising status in the sport. She was a novice up-and-comer in her first games. She enters Tokyo as one of the key athletes ushering a new era of U.S. track and field. A standing she doesn’t take lightly.  

“I always carry a sense of responsibility,” McLaughlin said. “I definitely feel obligated to give my best and things that I believe in. I know how to carry myself. I do feel a great deal of responsibility. But it’s also a blessing and an honor to be a part of the (new generation), a part of the journey, a part of Team USA track and field and the great nation that we are. There is a lot of responsibility, but there is also so much reward and respect for it as well.”

The USA track and field team won 32 medals at the 2016 Olympics, including six gold medals on the women’s side. McLaughlin left Rio without a medal. This year the rising track star is hoping to bring home some hardware, preferably of the gold variety.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World-record holder Sydney McLaughlin embraces being part of new generation of track athletes

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