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It’s easy to forget that Sydney McLaughlin is just 22 years old. The New Jersey native conquered the Tokyo Olympic Games like a true veteran—and as a two-time Olympian after making her first U.S. team at age 16, perhaps she is.
Whenever she hits the track, magic usually follows, especially if her chief rival, fellow American Dalilah Muhammad, is in the race, too.
“Iron sharpening iron,” McLaughlin has said of Muhammad. “Every time we step on the track, it’s always something fast.”
The duo has pushed each other to new heights in the 400-meter hurdles for the past few years. But this summer, McLaughlin took things to a new level: She became the first woman to break 52 seconds in the event when she won the U.S. Olympic Trials, then lowered her world record to an astounding 51.46 to win the Olympic final in Tokyo. Muhammad led the early stages of the race and nearly looked like she’d defend her title, but McLaughlin was too strong in the closing meters and successfully captured her first global title with a perfectly executed race.
“It feels surreal,” McLaughlin says now of the moment she’s dreamed about since she was 8 years old. “My team and I were truly in such an amazing place, and God worked everything out according to His plan. It was truly beautiful.”
The newly minted Olympic champion came back to close out the final day of competition by leading off Team USA’s gold medal–winning 4 x 400-meter relay. The moment was made even more special for the fact that her training partner, Allyson Felix, was part of the quartet as well, along with Muhammad and 800-meter specialist Athing Mu.
During the pandemic year, McLaughlin made a big change by switching coaches from Joanna Hayes, a USC assistant coach and 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles, to Bobby Kersee, who has guided the careers of such legends as his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee; the late Florence Griffith-Joyner; and, of course, Felix, who closed out her fifth and final Olympic Games in Tokyo as the most decorated U.S. track and field Olympian of all time and the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history with 11 medals.
“One thing I have learned from Allyson over this year is to trust the process, and Bobby’s timing,” McLaughlin wrote in an email to Women’s Running. “He will always make sure we are ready to go when it matters. We definitely sync up during workouts sometimes. It’s fun having someone so talented pushing me to be better.”
It’s clear that Kersee knows how to guide big stars, and though it was a leap of faith to swap coaches during a year of overwhelming uncertainty, McLaughlin says the move helped her grow as a person on and off the track.
“The biggest challenge this year I faced was just having faith in a new program during such a big year. It honestly couldn’t have turned out any better though,” she says. “This year, one thing I learned about myself is how beneficial it is for me to step out of my comfort zone. In all facets of life.”
Kersee is McLaughlin’s fourth coach in five years, after graduating from high school in 2017 and spending one incredibly successful year in the NCAA at the University of Kentucky under coach Edrick Floreal (now at Texas) before turning professional in 2018.
McLaughlin would often see Kersee’s group at the UCLA track and made the change after consulting with the coach on her hurdling technique.
“Training under Bobby has been amazing,” she says. “He is such a seasoned coach, as well as an amazing person. Our bond has grown stronger over the course of this year, and I look forward to seeing where our journey takes us.”
The sky is the limit for McLaughlin, who will be in her athletic prime with global championships scheduled for the next four consecutive years. The United States will host next year’s world athletics championships in Eugene, Oregon, a welcome change after Tokyo’s spectator-less arenas, and, of course, her residence of Los Angeles will play host to the Olympic Games in 2028.
“Not being able to go over and hug my fiancé and parents were part of the dream that got put on hold this year,” she says of winning in Tokyo. “Honestly, for me, the best part is being able to share these moments with my coach, family, and friends.”
Will she go even faster in the 400-meter hurdles? Will she revisit her untapped potential in the flat 400 meters? Or the 100-meter hurdles? There are many questions ahead for one of the United States’ brightest young stars, but, for now, she is mum on the details of goals beyond this standout year—and has a wedding to plan.
“This year I just want to continue to grow into all God calls me to be,” she says. “On and off the track.”
This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.