For many professional athletes, the Olympics are a lifelong dream, the opportunity to represent their countries alongside the best athletes in the world. Very few achieve the distinction, and even fewer do so in their teenage years – but that is not the case for Sydney McLaughlin.
In 2016, the then 16-year-old high-school student qualified for the Olympics in the 400m hurdles. At that time, the teenager from New Jersey was the youngest athlete to make the US Track and Field Olympic team in nearly 40 years.
“Honestly, even after I made the team, I couldn’t believe it. I woke up the next morning, and I was like: ‘This is not real life’,” says McLaughlin.
After placing fifth in her semi-final, she failed to progress to the final, but the experience was significant for McLaughlin. “I think it actually took me going to Rio to understand that, OK, this one is out of the way … now I can really go to the Olympics,” says McLaughlin, who is now 20.
For the past four years, Tokyo 2020 has been her primary focus, her chance to have the full Olympic experience. And everything seemed to be lining up perfectly.
McLaughlin ended the 2019 season by reaching the 400m hurdles final at the world championships in Doha. The race was a showdown with her US teammate, and Olympic champion, Dalilah Muhammad. Though McLaughlin surged towards the end of the race, Muhammad maintained her lead, setting a new world record with McLaughlin only 0.07 seconds behind in second.
“Anyone would be upset falling a little bit short, but to end it with a half a second PR and that close to the world record, I couldn’t really complain. And it was perfect timing setting it up for this year,” says McLaughlin.
There was no doubt. McLaughlin was ready for the Tokyo Games, but there was something out of her control. At the beginning of 2020, Covid-19 swept across the world, upending nearly every facet of society and ultimately resulting in the postponement of the Olympics until 2021.
McLaughlin, like other professional athletes, said she understands why the Games were postponed. “Personally, I agree with the decision,” says McLaughlin. “Although it is unfortunate for all the athletes who have been working so hard up until this point, the safety and wellbeing of athletes, fans and coaches should be the first priority.”
McLaughlin is using the extra time to her advantage. “This just gives us more time to prepare mentally and physically,” she says.
Once her normal training schedule resumes, she will focus on the little things, like hurdle technique, stride pattern and confidence going into the first hurdle. These seemingly small details can add up to major gains in a race that lasts less than a minute.
Though workouts are different during times of social distancing, technology has enabled McLaughlin to remain connected to her teammates and coach, Joanna Hayes. Hayes, who won the gold medal in the 100m hurdles at the 2004 Olympics, says she draws on her past successes and mistakes when coaching McLaughlin.
“There are times when I’m like, ‘I did that, we’re not going to do that. She’s not going to make that same mistake,’” says Hayes, who has been coaching McLaughlin since November 2018.
In just over a year, they have already gelled, forging a relationship that extends beyond that of coach and athlete. The energy between them is focused and driven, while simultaneously lighthearted and carefree. McLaughlin describes Hayes – her first female coach– as nurturing and caring.
“Syd knows that I have her complete best interest at heart, not just on the track but in life. I am not going to steer her wrong,” said Hayes. “I’m going to tell her what’s best for Sydney not Sydney McLaughlin.”
Hayes says she is careful not to overwhelm McLaughlin. The goal is not necessarily to win gold or set a world record right away. There is plenty of time for that. Instead, the focus is simply on ensuring that McLaughlin is consistently faster with every race – which was the case in 2019.
“Winning races comes and goes, and records come and go with it,” says McLaughlin. “Every year, the only goal I set for myself is to beat my own times. I try to be better each year than I was the last.”
Maintaining balance is also important to McLaughlin, who, with the help of Hayes, prioritizes time to pursue passions and interests outside of running. “She understands that at the end of the day I’m 20, and there are things that I want to go do in life. She’s very open to fitting those things in and making the process fun,” says McLaughlin.
Last summer, after the Wanda Diamond League competition in Monaco, the duo traveled throughout France. Driving to the summit of a mountain in Marseilles was a highlight for McLaughlin, who said she appreciates having time to enjoy race destinations instead of simply running and going home.
Recently her sponsor, New Balance, supported McLaughlin in launching her own YouTube channel, which gives her subscribers a peek into her training journey and the more personal – and goofy – side of ‘Syd the Kid.’ McLaughlin is also active on Instagram, where she has amassed almost 500,000 followers. There she posts pictures and videos of herself modeling her latest fashion finds, displaying her impressive juggling skills and cuddling with her new Goldendoodle.
That’s not the only new thing in McLaughlin’s life. Over the past four years, she graduated high school, competed for the University of Kentucky for one year before becoming a professional athlete, moved to Los Angeles and learned how to drive a car – a Mercedes she calls Chili.
Her transition to the west coast was made easier by having her athletic family close by. For her first year in California, her mom, who ran in high school, lived with her, and now she periodically visits from New Jersey. Both of McLaughlin’s brothers have also moved to Los Angeles – only a couple blocks away from her. McLaughlin’s brother Taylor, who placed second in the 400m hurdles in the 2016 Under-20 World Championships, even trains alongside her, just as they did when they were kids.
As McLaughlin now looks toward the Olympics in 2021, she says her accomplishments have kept her grounded. “I feel like I’m halfway through my story, but technically it’s just starting. It’s really motivating to know that we’ve done this, and there’s still so much more to do.”