From the last Olympics to now, Sydney McLaughlin has grown from phenom to GOAT, from a precocious 16-year-old New Jersey schoolgirl who ran her way onto Team USA to the fastest 400-meter hurdler in history now looking for Tokyo gold.
McLaughlin will be one of the faces of not just Team USA but these entire Olympic Games. And the world record 51.90-second performance she blistered through at last month’s U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials — beating not just reigning gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad, but the New Yorker’s former world record as well — stamped her as the favorite in the Tokyo final.
“Iron sharpens iron,” McLaughlin said. “People can call it whatever they want to: 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.”
This back-and-forth has seen the two locals post the four fastest times in history. Any time they step on the track together, the world record is in jeopardy, and fans are in for a show. The Tokyo Olympics should be the headline event.
“Oh, it makes it exciting for the fans. It makes it nerve wracking for me,” Muhammad, 31, said with a laugh. “But it’s definitely fun to be part of history and to be part of changing the women’s 400-meter hurdles. So I definitely think more is in store for me, and I definitely think Tokyo will be a good race.”
Both have refuted the perception this is a rivalry. In their case, familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, but competition.
Muhammad — a Jamaica, Queens, native and former national champ at Cardozo High — established herself first as only the second woman to have a 400 hurdles world record, Olympic gold and world title. She set a fast-moving target for McLaughlin, 10 years her junior and growing up in Dunellen, N.J.
But years of chasing Muhammad didn’t daunt McLaughlin; it only made her faster.
“Dalilah is a great competitor. I was growing into my own person,” said McLaughlin, who used the COVID-19 quarantine to not only switch coaches but strengthen her faith. “The biggest differences is my faith, trusting God and trusting that process and 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.”
He also made McLaughlin a born runner.
McLaughlin’s mother, Mary, and her older siblings, Taylor and Morgan, all ran. Her father, Willie, was an All-American at Manhattan and 1984 Olympic Trials 400-meter semifinalist. And Sydney was a phenom at Union (N.J.) Catholic High, reaching the 2016 Rio Olympics at 16, the youngest American Olympian since 1976 and youngest to compete in track since 1972.
She earned the affectionate moniker Syd the Kid, so young she took her lucky Minions blanket to Rio. But after the combination of sudden fame, post-Olympic depression and teen bullies sucked so much joy out of the sport she nearly quit, McLaughlin has come through the other side with a mature, professional approach.
McLaughlin has moved across the country to LA, training with and mentored by Team USA star Allyson Felix and taking Felix’ brother Wes as her agent. She signed with New Balance and hired Bob Kersee as her coach last year.
And she’s found her voice, using it to speak on topics like bullying.
“I know that the mark she will leave on this world will be so much bigger than records and medals,” Felix told TIME. “She will show girls and women that success doesn’t make your life easy, that bullying happens even when you’re beautiful, and that your voice has power beyond what you could ever imagine.”
Syd the Kid is all grown up. And she’s worked herself into position to become Syd the Champ.
“My coach and I have just been training for this. This is what our year has been really about, just getting to this point,” McLaughlin said. “I’m super grateful and happy to be on the team and excited to see what happens in Tokyo.”
After having run the second-fastest time in history at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar (52.23) — only to lose to Muhammad’s world record-setting run by 0.07 seconds — McLaughlin turned the tables at the Olympic Trials.
Muhammad overcame a COVID-19 scare and early-season hamstring injury before heading to Eugene, Ore. But once she got there and faced a dangerous heat wave that delayed the 400 hurdles final by five hours — it was still in the mid-90s when the gun went off at 9:20 p.m. — McLaughlin was at her focused best.
“You can’t control what happens to you. You can control how you respond to it,” McLaughlin said. “Bobby is always talking about Muhammad Ali. You have to be ready for that left hook, and we definitely were.”
A former elite hurdler himself, Kersee has trained some of the biggest names in track history (Felix, Florence Griffith Joyner and his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee). McLaughlin’s growth as a technician under his tutelage has been undeniable.
Even in her stellar race in Doha, McLaughlin was taking 16 strides between hurdles on her right lead leg. And when she had to switch to her left on hurdles No. 8 and 10, she stutter-stepped and lost ground to Muhammad on both.
The trials showed her transformation. She nailed her stride counts perfectly — 14-stepping the first four, and cleanly maintaining 15 the rest of the way, leading smoothly on both legs without stuttering once.
The result was walking Muhammad down on the final straightaway for the first sub-52 in history.
“Oh my gosh! It’s one of those moments that you dream about, think about and replay in your head,” McLaughlin said. “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.”
She seemed more shocked than Muhammad, who anticipated the record run.
“I definitely saw it coming. She looked so good during the rounds, it’s definitely just a matter of time,” said Muhammad, who clocked the sixth-fastest time ever (52.42) and still lost by over a half-second. “So, yeah, I absolutely saw it coming.”
At 21, there is a lot more coming in McLaughlin’s career. But her camp aims to have it transcend just the 400 hurdles.
Her $1.5 million New Balance deal makes her one of the world’s highest-paid runners. William Morris Endeavor — which reps Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Martin Scorsese — took her on as only its second track client, and aims to parlay her talent and looks into stardom in off-Olympic years.
After going to her first Olympics with a cartoon blanket, she returns for her second with her own face on ads and modeling shoots. McLaughlin landing a brand ambassadorship with luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer and on the cover of international fashion magazine L’Officiel are the first steps in her stardom extending off the track.
But it all stems from her record-setting steps on the track.
“It’s an honor,” McLaughlin said of her place in the sport. “So many amazing women have come before me; so many amazing women [will] come after me, and I just want to be able to leave my mark and be a part of such an amazing sport.”