Sydney McLaughlin competes in the Women's 400 Meters Hurdles at U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field on June 27, 2021 in Eugene, Ore.
EUGENE, Oregon - By the time Sydney McLaughlin settled into the blocks at 9:20 p.m. Sunday, the unprecedented heatwave had subsided enough for the temperature to drop into the 90s.
It was McLaughlin’s race that was the scorcher.
When she crossed the finish line, the world record in the women’s 400-meter hurdles dropped into the 90s, too. That’s 51.90 seconds, a time that once seemed as unfathomable as 110 degrees in the Pacific Northwest.
When she processed what she’d just done at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field, McLaughlin first clutched her head in her hands, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
“It’s one of those moments that you dream and think about and replay in your head,” said McLaughlin. “When are you going to be able to put it together?
“I knew from the moment I woke up today that it was just going to be a great day…It was just the final ‘I did it!” moment and I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life.”
McLaughlin, 21, made her second Olympic team and in the process finally achieved the record she’d been chasing.
She slashed .26 off the previous mark set by defending Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad when she had McLaughlin hot on her heels. Actually, Muhammad set two world records in 2019 with McLaughlin taking second in the same race - first at nationals and second at the world championships.
This time, it was Muhammad who took the backseat, although she was pleased with her time of 52.42 seconds, the second-fastest time in the world this year. Muhammad, 31, overcame injuries and Covid before opening her season with a time of 55.01 seconds, which was sluggish by her standards.
“I had conversations with my coach, ‘Are you sure we’re going to get there?’” said Muhammad who made her second Olympic team. “He’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s going to happen. It’s going to come back.’ For a month straight I kept asking him every day at practice, ‘Are you sure?’ So I’m extremely grateful to be here today and so thankful that those setbacks are behind me.”
Anna Cockrell, 23, who a week earlier placed fifth in the 100-meter hurdles, qualified for her first Olympic team. She ran a personal best of 53.70 seconds, slicing .98 off her previous best of 54.68 when she won the NCAA title in early June for Southern California. Cockrell accomplished the rare double of also winning the NCAA 100-meter hurdles title.
While McLaughlin was calm and collected in her post-race interviews, Cockrell was exuberance personified.
“I feel like I’m about to jump out of my skin,” she said. “Best race of my life. Nearly a second PR. Whew.”
When the gun went off at historic Hayward Field, the three favorites were Shamier Little, a 2015 world silver medalist, in Lane 5, McLaughlin in Lane 6 and Muhammad in Lane 7. Cockrell was by herself out in Lane 9.
Muhammad said she wanted to be aggressive going into the first two hurdles, “to set the race up and just see what I had to come home. This was one of those races, you kind of let it go, see what happens.”
At about the eighth hurdle, Muhammad, McLaughlin and Little were close, but Little faltered. McLaughlin, who has the best flat speed of any 400-meter hurdler, turned on the jets at the ninth barrier to pull away.
Muhammad wasn’t surprised. “I definitely saw it coming,” she said. “She looked so good during the rounds. It was definitely just a matter of time. I knew she was capable of it.”
For years, McLaughlin has been touted as the next great track star. A New Jersey high school phenom and world junior record holder, she was the youngest Team USA track athlete in 36 years to make the Olympic team.
McLaughlin signed with Kentucky, and after one season turned pro and followed her coach, Edrick Floreal to Texas. McLaughlin then moved to Los Angeles to train with 2004 Olympic hurdles champ Joanna Hayes, switching last year to famed coach Bob Kersee. He has guided athletes ranging from his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers and now Allyson Felix.
For a while, it seemed like Kersee’s plan for coaching McLaughlin meant having her race every distance except the 400-meter hurdles. Indoors, she ran the 60-meter hurdles and outdoors the 100-meter hurdles so she could get comfortable using either leg.
“I knew right away it was making sense,” McLaughlin said. “As time progressed and strength started to build, it definitely reflected that we could get to this point. Bobby definitely knows how to put things together when the time counts.”
When she finally ran a 400 hurdles race on June 6 – her first time since worlds in October 2019 – McLaughlin clocked 52.83 seconds, the fastest opener ever.
She said she knew that when she cleaned up some mistakes and got her stride patterns right, “We were going to do something really fast.”
In the race Sunday, McLaughlin used 14 strides through the first four hurdles, then 15 the rest of the way.
To put her time in perspective, in the 400-meter heats at the Trials, only 11 of the 28 runners ran faster than 51.90 - and they didn’t have any hurdles in the way.
Only 91 women in the entire world have run a lap faster this year.
While Muhammad has said she doesn’t consider their showdowns a rivalry, McLaughlin said,
“Iron sharpens iron. People can call it whatever they want to call it. It’s two great athletes pushing each other to be better. There’s no animosity, no hard feelings. It’s just two people trying to be their best and we wouldn’t be able to have these world records go back and forth without one another.”
Muhammad said she understands that since she and McLaughlin have been part of three world records in their last three head-to-head races, now it’s almost expected.
“It definitely makes it exciting for the fans,” she said, “and makes it nerve-wracking for me. It’s fun to be part of history and part of changing the women’s 400-meter hurdles so I definitely think more is in store for me. Tokyo will be a great race.”
There could even be a Team USA sweep, with Cockrell now in the mix.
“In 2016, I didn’t even make the final,” she said. “It was pouring rain and I bawled my eyes out.”
She called her grandfather and told him she would be back. “He passed away about a month after Trials, but I kept my promise and I told him I was going to be on this team,” Cockrell said. “I’ve grown a lot since I was a high school senior competing at this meet to now making this team. I’m so excited and so happy.”
Before the pandemic, however, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to run any more.
“I felt like track was just continual stress, a continuous burden and I felt like I wasn’t measuring up,” Cockrell said.
Dreaming of the Olympic Games wasn’t enough to sustain her. “It was about just trying to find joy in life again,” Cockrell said. “It’s hard to have a dream with it’s almost impossible to get out of bed. Getting through that stuff, going to therapy is what allowed me to rediscover those dreams, to find them again, to claim them again.”
She took time off from training and went home to North Carolina to spend time with her family. While Cockrell was there, her high school coach convinced her to work out with the team. That was the impetus she needed to regaine the passion and love she has for the sport.
“Knowing that I’m here because I made the choice to be here is really what propelled me through the whole season,” Cockrell said. “It’s what kept me here, what keeps me motivated.”
Kunz Powers Through Heptathlon
First-time Olympian Annie Kunz scored 6,703 points to win the heptathlon and move to No. 5 on the all-time U.S. list and No. 1 on the 2021 world list. Kunz did not have the Olympic standard coming into the Trials, but added 550 points to her personal best. She amassed 4,042 points on the first day and had PRs in the long jump and javelin, plus a season best in the 800. Kendell Williams scored 6,683 points to take second and earn her second Olympic berth while Erica Bougard was third with 6,667 points to make her first Olympic team.
The same three heptathletes went to the 2019 world championships where Bougard was fourth, Williams fifth and Kunz 13th.