DES MOINES, Iowa — At the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships, the 400-meter hurdles field was loaded. On the line, four Olympic and world championships medalists, plus the woman with the world leading time this year.
It took a world record to beat them all.
Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad, 29, won her fourth national title in 52.20 seconds, easily breaking the former world record of 52.34 set by Russian athlete Yulia Pechonkina in 2003.
“I can’t believe it,” Muhammad said after collecting her national champion medal. “I’m feeling really good. I’m so happy to have made the team, and I’m so happy at the selection of girls who are going with me [to the 2019 world championships] in the 400 hurdles. The world record, I’m just shocked, I don’t think it’s hit me yet.”
And Muhammad did it in the rain — a climatic condition that she must like. She won her Olympic gold medal in Rio in the rain as well.
“Ashley [Spencer] said that to me before the race, ‘Dude, you’re the one who brings the rain,’” said Muhammad with a laugh. “We always seem to get the rain, the 400 hurdlers. I don’t know what it is.”
She recalled watching 2019 U.S. champion Rai Benjamin winning the 400 hurdles at the 2018 NCAA championships on a cold, rainy day.
“I thought if he can do it, I definitely can do it too,” said Muhammad.
She also did it after recovering from a small accident two weeks ago. She tripped during practice while running on a flat track (not over a hurdle), fell and hit her head, suffering a mild concussion. Coming to Des Moines, she was not sure if she could compete. Only yesterday did she finally feel well enough to run again.
Behind her, Sydney McLaughlin, the 19-year-old phenom who was favored to dethrone the Olympic champion, ran a season’s best of 52.88 to finish second. She even wore glittery gold eye shadow.
But unlike when she beat Muhammad in the Oslo Diamond League meet in mid-June — the first time that she has ever beaten the Olympic champ — McLaughlin could not come by her in the final stretch. Muhammad was just too fast.
McLaughlin was not disappointed.
“It was a really fast race,” she said. “I could feel the pace being pushed, and I’m just really happy to be part of a world-record race, so it’s awesome.”
The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, Ashley Spencer, finished third in a personal best of 53.11.
Muhammad, McLaughlin and Spencer will join the reigning world champion, Kori Carter, in Doha at the 2019 world championships. Carter has a bye to this year’s worlds and did not race at U.S. outdoor nationals, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
“I knew Dalilah, Sydney, Shamier [Little], I knew everyone was going to get out fast,” said Spencer. “Those three girls are notorious for getting out fast. So I knew I had to stay within striking distance if I had a chance to make the team. And I just relied on my kick, and it worked out.”
Little — the defending national champion and 2015 world silver medalist — finished fourth in 53.91.
With the attention focused on McLaughlin in the lead-up to U.S. outdoors, Muhammad came to Des Moines as an underdog. With the world-leading time of 53.32, McLaughlin was heralded as the heir apparent to the women’s 400-meter hurdles throne. At age 16, she had made her first Olympic team — the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to make an Olympic roster in 44 years.
But McLaughlin simply wanted to make her first world championships team.
“I knew [Muhammad] was going to go out, and I knew she was going to finish strong,” said McLaughlin. “Just to have the same three girls from Rio, it’s really awesome to have us all finish and be able to represent USA at worlds this year.”
Underdog or not, Muhammad had the world record on her mind. To beat such a strong field, she knew she would have to run close to it.
“I’ve been hitting that time at practice consistently, and my coach said, ‘There’s no way you can’t do it,’” she said. “You just have to execute off that last 40. His words, ‘Drop your arms,’ hit me that last 40 and I just was trying to hold on.”
Muhammad credited the strong women’s team with pushing her for the record.
“Running with such a strong team, that’s when world records can be broken, I said that earlier in the year,” she said. “We’ve all just been fighting for those three top spots [to make the world championship team]. We’ve been pushing each other mentally and physically on the track. We know what each other’s capable of. We want to be the best, and we want to come out on top more than anything. We want to represent Team USA.”
“Being a U.S. female hurdler is the hardest thing to do,” she said. “The top four in the world is top four in the United States, so you just have to show up and hope that everything works in your favor.”
Spencer was not surprised by Muhammad’s world record.
“When you have this field of talented women, it can be rain, sleet, snow,” she said. “You already know there’s going to be a show.”
None of the women think the current world record will stand for long.
“It’s definitely just a beginning,” predicted Muhammad. “I think that 52 is definitely going to get broken, if not by me than definitely the other women.”
“It could be broken again this year or next year,” added McLauglin. But then she looked ahead to the world championships.
“Just to know that we have all have the strength to be able to represent and possibly sweep this year,” she said, “I’m sure that worlds is going to be pretty fast too.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.