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It was billed as the Tokyo Olympics race nobody wanted to miss and the women’s 400-meter hurdles delivered on the hype. In a Team USA battle to the line, this time it was Sydney McLaughlin who took the win, earning a gold medal in a new world record, 51.46. American Dalilah Muhammad was second in 51.58, and Femke Bol of the Netherlands won bronze in 52.03.
Muhammad, 31, the defending Olympic and world champion, got out to the fastest start and held off McLaughlin until the final hurdle. Both Americans surged ahead of Bol at that point and the last 20 meters was a familiar battle between two women whose performances have only elevated each of their games.
“I saw Dalilah ahead of me with one to go. I just thought ‘Run your race,'” McLaughlin said. “The race doesn’t really start till hurdle seven. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had.”
The race mirrored the competition between McLaughlin and Muhammad at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, when McLaughlin became the first woman ever to break the 52-second barrier, in 51.90. On Wednesday morning in Japan, she did it again, only faster, and Muhammad, too, dipped below 52 to set a new personal record. Bol’s mark is a new European record as well.
“After the ninth hurdle, I thought, ‘I’m about to win this,'” Muhammad said. “That was not the case, but I knew I had to take it out. I was in lane seven, so I thought, why not. Maybe I’ll be able to pull off a Karsten [Warholm, the gold medalist in the men’s 400-meter hurdles] and lead from start to finish.”
McLaughlin, 21, was known as “Syd the Kid” at the 2016 Rio Games. Back then she made the team as a 17-year-old, but five years later, she’s dominated her event—and definitely no longer the youngster on the scene. Last summer, when the Tokyo Games were postponed, McLaughlin decided to make a coaching change, joining Bob Kersee and remaining on Los Angeles. Her preparation and buildup to the Trials and the Games indicated the world record was within reach, she said.
“I’m absolutely delighted. What a great race. I’m just grateful to be out here celebrating that extraordinary race and representing my country,” said McLaughlin, who’s the youngest gold medalist in Olympic 400-meter hurdle history.
Muhammad, who held the world record prior to McLaughlin, overcame a difficult pandemic year to compete in Tokyo. She battled COVID-19, as well as a hamstring injury, but ultimately recovered from both and was able to regain her form in time for the Trials.
“Every question is going to be, ‘Am I happy or am I unhappy with silver?'” Muhammad said. “But that’s not how I feel at all. I’ve had an amazing year and to finish with 51.5, shattering my personal best, is absolutely amazing.”
Though much has been made of a rivalry between Muhammad and McLaughlin, the duo said during the post-race press conference that they have mutual respect for each other and appreciate how they’re able to push one another to new milestones and records.
“People can post whatever they want about us, but we’re just two great athletes pushing each other to be our best and at the end of the day we both represent the same country,” McLaughlin said. “When we get on the line, we’re going to do what we have to do, but other than that, we can still support each other.”
The third American, Anna Cockrell, was disqualified during the final, according to the results. It’s the end of a long, successful, season for the 23-year-old, who before qualifying for Team USA, won the NCAA titles in the 100-meter hurdles and 400-meter hurdles while competing for the University of Southern California. The 23-year-old has also been outspoken about the mental health struggles she’s had along the way. After qualifying for the Olympics, she said, “In 2019, I was super depressed. I didn’t want to be here anymore, so to be standing here as an Olympian is more than I can take.”
For her part, Muhammad was more than satisfied with her silver medal performance, noting the significance of reaching the podium in the fastest 400-meter hurdle race in Olympic history.
“All three of our times would have won any Olympics, any other year. I’m so proud to be part of that history and even more proud of my teammate Sydney,” she said. “I’m just happy it’s a one-two final for USA, and today I’m happy with second.”