EUGENE, Ore. – Sydney McLaughlin had her eyes on the prize as she ran the women’s 400-meter hurdles Sunday.
The Olympic Games? No.
“My mind was on finishing the race and eating a cheeseburger,” said the 16-year-old phenom, who placed third with a time of 54.15 to set a new world junior record.
The previous world junior record of 54.40 was set by Xing Wang of China in 2005.
McLaughlin, of Dunellen, New Jersey, will be the youngest Team USA track athlete to compete in the Games since 1972 (Cindy Gilbert, 15 years and 75 days).
McLaughlin will turn 17 on Aug. 7, which is during the Rio Games. Had the United States competed in Moscow in 1980, Carol Lewis would have still been 16 for the women’s long jump.
“I can’t believe this is happening right now,” said McLaughlin, who added that she wanted to “just get this out of the way. It’s been a very long year, and the trials is stressful.”
Dalilah Muhammad won the race by more than 10 meters, clocking 52.88 seconds to break the trials record and post the fastest time in the world this year. Ashley Spencer was second in 54.02.
Shamier Little, the pre-trials favorite based on her world-leading time, did not make the final, which opened the door for hurdlers like McLaughlin.
“Just hearing the word Olympics was a dream in the back of my mind,” McLaughlin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah I’m going to the trials,’ but it’s not going to happen. It was never really on my radar, until I ran 54 (seconds).
“My season started off really rough with some injuries and some personal issues. It wasn’t looking good. But every Olympic athlete has two or three major struggles their Olympic year, and I definitely faced mine.”
McLaughlin appeared to be rolling at the trials. She won both her heat (55.46 seconds) and her semifinal (55.23).
But inside, she was roiling with doubt.
“I think the first day was definitely the hardest,” McLaughlin said, “just the trials, coming up here for the first time and running on this track, in this type of competition. As the rounds went on it definitely got easier to manage the nerves and get used to the field, but it’s a lot of mental preparation, and just keeping the negative thoughts out and trusting in the ability of what you’ve done so far. My coach had a lot to do with that. I had a mental breakdown my first day, and without them I wouldn’t have stepped on the line.”
Although McLaughlin came in as the fifth-fastest performer in the world, she thought she was too young to go hurdle-to-hurdle with the older athletes such as Muhammad, who is 26, and Spencer, who is 23.
“It was me doubting everything I’d done so far this season,” McLaughlin said, “not understanding that I’ve worked to get where I am and that I deserved to be here. And just thinking, ‘I’m 16 and these girls are all professionals.’ I definitely had a moment where I didn’t think I could do it, and they told me ‘You’re getting on the line and running this race.’ That put me where I am today.”
She wasn’t just worried about herself. Her older brother Taylor was competing at the trials in the men’s 400-meter hurdles. While Taylor qualified for the semifinals, he did not start the race.
McLaughlin is no newcomer to the international radar screen.
She won the IAAF World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia, last year with a time of 55.94 seconds.
In June, McLaughlin was the USA Track & Field Athlete of the Week for breaking two national high school records at the New Balance Nationals, including the 400-meter hurdles record of 55.20 set by Leslie Maxie in 1984. McLaughlin’s time of 54.46 also made her the American junior record holder, breaking the mark of 54.7 set in 2002 by Lashinda Demus, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist. It was also the best youth 400-meter hurdles time in the world.
McLaughlin smashed all of those records Sunday.
“This has to be the icing on the cake,” she said. “Regardless of what happens in Rio, I made it here and I’m just so thankful for all of that.”
Besides that cheeseburger, McLaughlin’s incentive to succeed has always revolved around food.
“It was AAU track,” McLaughlin recalled. “I was 6 years old, and my dad said that if I won I would get a chocolate bar with almonds. So I won the race and I got a chocolate bar, and ever since I kept running so I could get chocolate bars.”
Kori Carter, who placed fourth with a time of 54.47 seconds, was duly impressed by her new young rival.
“She is a beast,” Carter said. “She’s the truth. I was in every single heat with her and she carries herself like a pro and I know she will represent the USA amazingly.”
Wilma Rudolph was only 16 when she competed in the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games on the 4x100-meter team, where she won a bronze medal before her triple-gold-medal performance in Rome four years later.
The youngest track athlete for the U.S. was Esther Stroy, who was 15 years, 64 days when she competed at the 1968 Olympic Games in the 400. Stroy was injured in the semifinals.