Sydney McLaughlin competes in the Women's 400 Metres Hurdles heats at the 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 on Oct. 1, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
There’s a photo that Sydney McLaughlin posted on her Instagram two years ago that shows her on the starting blocks at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, hands on her hips, gazing down at the track with her mouth slightly open.
She turned 17 during those Games, making her the youngest U.S. athlete to compete in track and field at the Olympics since 1972, and she looks nervous in the photo.
“Rio was just so mind-blowing,” she said. “I was absolutely terrified.”
When she posted that photo back in 2018 she wrote that she prayed she’d get the same opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in the world in two years. Now 21 years old, the Dunellen, New Jersey, native is two years into her pro career and will be one of the sport’s most-watched athletes when she does get the belated opportunity to go for gold in her second Olympics next summer.
“I think the biggest difference between Rio and now is just my knowledge of the sport,” she said. “At 16 I was just happy to be there, I was surprised I was there, and I was just going off instinct and whatever else. But I think as you grow in the sport and get to this level it really becomes not only a job but there’s so much to learn to keep evolving and growing. That’s what I’m doing is learning about everything about the sport and what it takes to keep growing in it.”
McLaughlin’s journey has been well-chronicled, from setting a junior world record in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2016 Olympic Trials to her sensational high school career to turning pro after one year at the University of Kentucky, where she won the NCAA title and set a new collegiate record in the 400-meter hurdles.
She made her professional debut at 19 years old in January 2019 at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, and in her first season running in the IAAF Diamond League won the coveted Diamond Trophy in the 400-meter hurdles almost a year ago to the day.
Where she fell just short — if you can even call it that — was at the world championships, where she won the silver medal in her first global final of her signature event. She ran a personal-best time of 52.23 seconds and was beat only by reigning Olympic champion and U.S. teammate Dalilah Muhammad, who broke her own world record with a time of 52.16 in one of the most thrilling races of the entire meet.
Part of McLaughlin’s maturation as an athlete and a person has also included using her platform to speak on issues of social justice. Earlier this summer she took part in an E! Online panel with fellow Olympians and women of color, including gymnast Laurie Hernandez and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, and the discussion included issues of justice and the fact that too many times people seek to silence athletes from sharing their opinions.
“I mean, I think as an athlete, especially when you’re put in the spotlight like the NBA or a football player, that’s what people see most from you,” she said. “You don’t see the daily basis or the things they’re interested in or passionate about. That’s what’s great about social media these days is you can expose that and show other sides of you and passions of yours that aren’t just being an athlete for those three-to-four hours per day.”
Although McLaughlin said she hasn’t had any personal experience with people trying to deny her voice on social issues, she’s seen it happen so often to so many others. And even though they’re famous athletes, she said, they’re still people of color who go through things just like everyone else and have valid opinions to share.
“We’re only an athlete for so many hours of the day,” she said. “It’s not all there is to us. There’s so much more.”
Growing up mixed, McLaughlin said, she did deal with some confusion as a kid because you can never please the people who try to say you’re either “too this” or “too that.” It took starting at a private high school after years of public school and finding a more diverse mix of people to start to feel more comfortable, she said.
“It was just about me deciding that whatever I was, regardless of whether people liked it or not, I could be that,” she said. “It took a long time to get to that point, but you have to experience some of those things first-hand. I appreciate now being in the position I am.”
McLaughlin’s growth since Rio extends to the track as well. She’s used these past few months to work on some of the technical aspects of her races she said she wasn’t completely comfortable with last year, including her starts, her ability to switch legs and her stride pattern.
She knows that success next summer in Tokyo would come even greater attention and fame, and an even greater chance to use her platform to share her passions, reach people and talk about things that matter to her.
From the tragedies that unfolded earlier this year with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, McLaughlin said, the biggest positive she’s seen is that people are starting to have the conversations that they’ve been avoiding or putting off for a very long time.
“In the sports world, with things like the NBA players putting things on their jerseys and having these conversations, we’re putting people in a position to really kind of push change, and I think it’s a good start,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but even just in the media and social media to be able to put those things out there into the world and start to talk about it more, it encourages people to go vote and do the things we need to do to get the ball rolling more.”