Sydney McLaughlin was only 17 years old when she made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games, becoming the youngest Olympic track and field athlete since 1972. As one of the U.S. Olympic team’s freshest faces, she didn’t make the 400m hurdles final in Rio, but she exceeded expectations. Now at age 21, McLaughlin will arrive in Tokyo with her eyes set on gold.
Here’s what you should know about Sydney McLaughlin:
400m dominance runs in the McLaughlin family
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Success in the 400m is part of McLaughlin’s genes. Her father, Willie, was an All-American in the 400m at Manhattan College and a semi-finalist at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, while her mother, May, was the student manager of the team. Sydney’s sister, Morgan, ran for St. Mary’s University, and her brother, Taylor, competed in the 400m and 400m hurdles for the University of Michigan.
Growing in Dunellen, New Jersey as part of a family so focused on running, Sydney said her parents made sure not to put too much pressure on her at a young age.
“My parents were very cautious [when I was] growing up not to run me too much,” McLaughlin told NBC Olympics. “They didn’t let me run on a club team because they didn’t want me to burn myself out. They were strategic about spacing things out and progressively getting better and better every year.”
McLaughlin trains with Allyson Felix’s coach, Bob Kersee
After McLaughlin graduated from Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, she ran at the University of Kentucky during the 2017-18 season and won the NCAA 400m hurdles title.
After her first collegiate season, McLaughlin decided to turn pro and moved to Los Angeles. Since summer 2020, she has been working with Olympic medalist Allyson Felix’s coach, Bob Kersee. McLaughlin credited Felix as a mentor, helping her reach new heights and learn how to handle the Olympic stage.
"I learn so much every day of practice just being out there and watching how she handles things,” McLaughlin said. “It's been a really great experience being around her and Bobby ... [I'm trying to] soak up as much as I can as she's at the end of her career."
McLaughlin has been pushed by Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad
McLaughlin isn’t alone among the world's best 400m hurdle athletes. Dalilah Muhammad, who won the event in Rio, has provided some interesting battles with McLaughlin the past couple of years.
The two competed against each other at the world championships in 2019, with Muhammad taking home gold in a then-world record time of 52.16 seconds.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, McLaughlin finished first, breaking Muhammad’s record with a 51.90-second time and becoming the first woman to run the race in under 52 seconds.
The Olympians will face each other again in Tokyo in what has been dubbed as track and field’s version of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. While the 21-year old enters Tokyo as the favorite to win gold, she praised Dalilah for pushing her in their head-to-head showdowns.
"Iron sharpens iron. There's no animosity or hard feelings. We have to have each other to have these world records," McLaughlin said after the U.S. Olympic Trials. "It's an honor. So many amazing women have come before me and will come after me. The glory isn't forever."
McLaughlin’s faith helped lead her through adversity
After setting the new world record in June, McLaughlin opened up about how her faith helped lead her to victory.
“Honestly, this season, just working with my new coach and my new support system, it’s truly just faith and trusting the process,” McLaughlin said in her post-race interview. “I couldn’t ask for anything more and truly it is all a gift from God.”
McLaughlin, who has over 600,000 followers on Instagram, shared her personal testimony in a post as she celebrated her victory and second straight Olympic appearance.