Sydney McLaughlin on Qualifying for Tokyo, Living Up to Expectations, and Learning to Love the 400-Meter Hurdles


Sydney McLaughlin is no stranger to the spotlight. Since her headline-catching Olympic debut in Rio at the age of 17, the hurdler has collaborated on an upcoming apparel collection with New Balance, was named to the 2021 Time 100 Next, and has landed endorsement deals, like her current role as a Tag Heuer ambassador.

And those are just her accolades off the track. In her sport, she’s become the first female athlete to accomplish all three of these feats: break 13 seconds for the 100-meter hurdles, 23 seconds for the 200-meter hurdles, and 53 seconds for the 400-meter hurdles.

On Sunday, McLaughlin added one more accomplishment to her résumé: a spot on Team USA for the second time. She’ll head to Tokyo next month to compete in the Olympics after winning the 400-meter hurdles finals and setting a new world record in the process with a time of 51.90.

But the weight of all this expectation seems to hardly faze the Los Angeles–based athlete when I speak to her over Zoom in April. McLaughlin is cool, calm, and quietly candid. She tells me, for instance, that the 400-meter hurdles are not her favorite.

“I’ve grown to like it. I don’t love it, but I’ve grown to like it,” she says and laughs. “It’s definitely a beast, for sure.”

The reason she was initially drawn to the event is admittedly a bit mundane in its pragmatism: Her high school coach saw potential and suggested it.

“Growing up, I hated the 400 [meter distance]. I definitely thought I was going to be the short sprinter,” McLaughlin says, referring to her penchant for the 100- and 200-meter track races. But in high school, she says, her coach saw an opportunity for her to excel in a difficult event—an event that was only added to the women’s Olympics lineup in 1984. “He was like, ‘That is your race. You have the speed to run the four, and the strength to be able to hurdle while doing it,’” McLaughlin explains. And thus began her meteoric rise in the 400-meter hurdles.

“It’s such a unique space because it is such a hard race, a lot of people don’t want to do it,” McLaughlin says. “With the 400 hurdles, there’s a step pattern to it. And once the fatigue kicks in, that step pattern changes, so alternating is crucial. It’s a different type of animal, you know.”

Honing her (perhaps undeniably innate) skills so quickly is what earned McLaughlin a spot at Rio in 2016. The only catch? She got sick on the flight over and finished fifth in the semifinals, knocking her out of the final competition. Despite this, McLaughlin remains gracious when talking about the experience.

“It was just such an honor to be there,” she says, noting that competing in Rio (where she and fellow newcomer Vashti Cunningham were roommates) taught her plenty. “It definitely prepared me for this year, and what to look forward to. It definitely forced me to grow up very fast in terms of track itself.”

It’s easy to forget that, at only 21 years old, she’s now preparing for her second Olympics at an age when many of her peers still have wet ink on their college diplomas. When she competed at Rio, one week after turning 17, she became the youngest U.S. Olympian to do so in track and field since 1972.

“I think the part that does tend to weigh on you is once you accomplish something like [qualifying for the Olympics], with that comes all these expectations for the future. These high standards are set because of this one event,” she says. “I think that for a while, that definitely weighed on me.”

No doubt that going pro in 2018, after a freshman year of running for the University of Kentucky, has also compounded that sense of anticipation, that nearly palpable feeling of expectant possibility. On top of all that, she now trains with the same coach as five-time Olympian Allyson Felix.

“I’m a very visual learner, so I’m always looking to [Allyson] to see how she’s responding to certain things or handling certain things,” McLaughlin says. “Seeing her intensity every single day at practice, it’s definitely encouraging.”

And given her grueling training schedule, every bit of encouragement matters. Five to six days per week, McLaughlin’s agenda goes like this: up to two hours of hurdles and speed work each morning, followed by a brief break, and then another hour-plus of weight training in the afternoon. After that, it’s recovery in the form of a cold plunge, sauna, or massage, depending on the day.

The training must be worth it, because she appears so at ease while sprinting through the 400-meter hurdles in 52.23 seconds. In the world, McLaughlin is ranked second only to fellow American Dalilah Muhammad, who beat her in 2019 by a hair’s breadth with a time of 52.16. To put those numbers in perspective: Imagine running the length of three and half football fields while leaping over 10 evenly-spaced barriers that are each roughly the height of a barstool. And doing it in under a minute.

Yet McLaughlin somehow makes this feat look like a breezy jaunt that thousands of spectators just happen to witness.

“That’s the amazing thing about hurdling: It gives you something else to focus on when you’re running,” she says. “I can almost distract myself from the pain by focusing on the hurdle that’s ahead of me. I think the composure comes from understanding that all energy is important. If I’m tensing up or getting stressed, I’m wasting energy that I could use toward the end.”

It’s almost too easy to point out the metaphoric connection here between the physical race and her mental fortitude: each race inching her a step closer to that dream of Olympic gold. One hurdle at a time.

Like many Olympians who identify a passion early on and do not deviate from a goal, McLaughlin acknowledges the sacrifices. She started running when she was six years old, after all.

“Most kids are having sleepovers on a Friday night, whereas I had a track meet on Saturday, so I can’t go,” she says. But she maintains her devotion to track also insulated her from “a lot of the craziness that the world has to offer,” and there’s comfort in that. “I do think it definitely was a gift. I’ve made friends along the way and had new experiences that may not have been what all my high school friends have, but I can call them my own.”

A deeply religious person (she says she can’t imagine racing without wearing her “God Is Love” bracelet), McLaughlin reads scripture prior to each competition. Lately, that’s been Hebrews 11:1.

“‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance about what we do not see,’” McLaughlin recites from memory. “So, just having faith in this process because I don’t know the outcome, and being confident that if I pray for it, if I hope for it, if I work for it, it’s going to turn out the way that God intends it to.”


  • Allyson Felix Is Headed to Her Fifth Olympic Games
  • Allyson Felix on Her New Lifestyle Shoe Company and Training for Her First Olympic Games as a Mom
  • Megan Rapinoe on the Hardest Part of Training for the Olympics Amid the Pandemic

Read More

You might also like

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More