Dalilah Muhammad hugs Sydney McLaughlin after competing in the women's 400m hurdles at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 4, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — In any other race in the history of the women’s 400-meter hurdles, Dalilah Muhammad would have won with a new world record time.
This was not that race.
In one of the most anticipated track & field showdowns of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, it was 21-year-old Sydney McLaughlin who claimed the gold medal Wednesday, using her superior closing speed to edge out the defending Olympic and world champion Muhammad at the line.
The win came in a time of 51.46, lowering the world record McLaughlin set at the Olympic trials by a staggering .44 of a second, and marked the first individual championship at this level for one of Team USA’s most celebrated track prodigies. And yet the feat was made even more impactful by beating Muhammad, the former world record holder whose time of 51.58 would have otherwise achieved that mark again today.
“I think that’s really just iron sharpening iron,” McLaughlin said. “You need somebody who’s going to push you to be your best, and I think that’s what we do so well. Every time we step on the track, it’s always something fast.”
Originally from Dunellen, New Jersey, McLaughlin’s coronation as the world’s best has been a long time coming.
A onetime prodigy in the sport, McLaughlin qualified for the Rio Games in 2016 as a 16-year-old, and she was just days past 17 when she raced there, eventually reaching the semifinals. The years since have been a steady march toward reaching her potential.
The elder Muhammad has been a key part of that journey.
A silver medalist at the 2013 world championships, she became the standard bearer in the 400 hurdles after winning the event at the Rio Games. Three years later she set the world record, then set it again a few weeks later while winning the world championship.
By then, though, McLaughlin was hot on her heels.
That year’s world championships were in Doha, Qatar. McLaughlin, in her debut at the biennial event, crossed the line in 52.23 — just seven-hundredths behind Muhammad. It was so close Muhammad wasn’t even sure who’d won.
All the while, McLaughlin was still just 20 years old.
In the summer of 2021, McLaughlin officially passed Muhammad. The turning point came at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in June, when in a late-night race in 90-degree weather she became the first woman to break the 52-second barrier, her time of 51.90 lowering Muhammad’s world record by more than a quarter second.
That result was confirmed on the biggest stage this week in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
With a steady rain falling on Monday, both hurdlers coasted through their semifinals, McLaughlin leading the field at 53.03, Muhammad second at 53.30 and no one else within .6 of a second.
In hot and sticky conditions for today’s late-morning final, the race proved to be a three-woman contest, with 21-year-old Dutch athlete Femke Bol joining the American duo.
Muhammad, running from lane seven, built and early lead and held it around the backstretch. By the time the runners were turning onto the final straightaway, McLaughlin, in lane four, was closing in fast. Muhammad still had a slight lead at the 10th hurdle; that’s when McLaughlin’s finishing speed over the final 40 meters proved to be the difference. Bol, running in lane five, was just behind the two Americans, finishing in 52.03 for the bronze medal. Fellow American Anna Cockrell started the race but was disqualified for a lane violation.
The DQ not withstanding, the race played out about as McLaughlin expected, so she never wavered when Muhammad took the early lead.
“I always know she’s going to go out (fast),” McLaughlin said. “I just knew that I had to be patient and trust that I could feel strong enough and come off 10 and give it everything I have.”
Patience, and trusting the process, can also describe her last five years.
When McLaughlin raced in Rio, she became the youngest U.S. track athlete to compete at the Olympic Games since 1972. Success early isn’t always a precursor to more success later, though. McLaughlin struggled with the grandeur of the Rio Games, and “let the atmosphere get to me,” she said.
Though seemingly on the fast lane to a professional career, she made a one-year pitstop at the University of Kentucky, where she won an NCAA title in her signature event. Then it was off to the pro ranks in the summer of 2018.
McLaughlin initially followed her coach to Texas, then moved to Los Angeles to work with a new coach. Last summer she switched coaches again, this time to team up with Bob Kersee. A legend in the sport, Kersee has coached a who’s-who of Olympic track stars, starting with his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee and sister-in-law Florence Griffith Joyner, and extending out to recent years with Allyson Felix, the nine-time Olympic medalist who’s competing at her fifth Games in Tokyo.
McLaughlin had known Kersee, with both being based in Los Angeles. When the pandemic threw Olympic hopefuls into a state of uncertainty, their relationship grew.
“He and I had a lot of conversations just as two people, and I realized Bobby was a really great person before he was a really great coach,” McLaughlin said. “I felt he saw things in my and in my career that I didn’t see in myself.”