On the track, it’s so easy to forget that Sydney McLaughlin is just 16 years old. She’s a blur of both power and finesse, her technique and form the envy of hurdlers a decade older.
Off the track, it’s impossible to forget that McLaughlin is still all of 16 years old. She’s bound for the Olympics, where she will be sure to take her lucky blanket, the one decorated with the animated Minions. She likes Netflix and getting her nails done — “lots of sparkles” — and is passionate about juggling, capable of twirling balls or bowling pins while riding a unicycle.
In fact, she started the juggling club at her school, Union Catholic in Scotch Plains, N.J., and after the Summer Games, “I’m going to focus on that a lot this year,” she says, “try to get more members and hopefully get a full squad together so we can perform at the pep rally.”
From the mouths of phenoms.
Juggling is not yet an Olympic sport, so McLaughlin will have to settle for hurdles, in which she already has established herself as one of the world’s best. She locked up her spot on the U.S. Olympic team at the track and field trials earlier this month in Eugene, Ore., becoming the youngest girl to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team since Carol Lewis — Carl Lewis’s sister — in 1980, the year the United States boycotted the Moscow Games.
McLaughlin will turn 17 before the 400-meter hurdles heats begin in Rio on Aug. 15, which will make her the youngest American track and field athlete to compete in the Olympics since 16-year-old Rhonda Brady at the 1976 Games.
Don’t expect to hear McLaughlin bragging about any of this any time soon. Her coach says if anything, McLaughlin is too humble at times. The teenager doesn’t seem to appreciate how talented she is, and her mental game doesn’t always match her physical capabilities. Earlier this month in Eugene, the self-doubt was so intense, the pressure so suffocating that McLaughlin said she suffered a mental breakdown.
“I’d gone to the meet a few days before my race,” she explained last week. “I saw the atmosphere. It was just like any other meet, but at the same time it was on TV, [and] I was getting texts from all my friends. There was just so much more work put into it than a regular high school meet that it became overwhelming at one point.”
Her family and coaches had to talk her down. Her brother, Taylor, a rising-sophomore hurdler at Michigan, walked her through his experiences, and her father tried to calm her nerves. Willie McLaughlin certainly could appreciate the pressures his daughter felt. He was once a track star, too, and raced the 400 meters in the 1984 Olympic trials. He reached the semifinal round but didn’t qualify.
“Running the Olympic trials was the single most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. . . . You’re running against the best of the best just to make those three spots,” he said. “The stress is off the scale.”
Somehow, the younger McLaughlin made it to the starting line in Eugene, winning her first heat easily and building some confidence. Her brother helped her warm up the next day, and she ran even faster in the semifinals, again winning her heat. For everyone watching at Hayward Field, it was quickly becoming clear her Olympic dream might be expedited.
McLaughlin always had the Olympics in her sights, but she was thinking of 2020, when she likely would be a college student, or maybe 2024, when she at least would be of drinking age.
In the final at the Olympic trials, she finished in a blazing 54.15 seconds, more than a second faster than her semifinal run and good enough for third place. She was more than 0.3 seconds ahead of the fourth-place runner,comfortably earning a ticket to Rio.
“It’s crazy to think [about],” she says. “It’s always been on my mind but definitely not at the age of 16.”
McLaughlin started in the sport a decade ago. Her dad motivated her then by baiting a 6-year-old McLaughlin with a candy bar — chocolate and almonds — after she crossed the finish line.
“So I won the race, and I got a chocolate bar, and ever since, I kept running so I could get chocolate bars,” she says.
It wasn’t until high school that McLaughlin’s career took a serious turn. Mike McCabe, her coach at Union Catholic, began working with her in the fall of her freshman year.
“It took me 15 minutes to realize that she definitely wasn’t the average athlete,” he said.
Since then, McLaughlin won the 400 hurdles at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Colombia last year and broke two national high school records at this year’s New Balance Nationals. Her time at the Olympic trials not only set a world junior record but was the seventh-best time by any female in the world this year, regardless of age.
The young hurdler is still improving by leaps and bounds, too. McCabe says she’s a perfect student who’s just beginning to realize what she’s capable of and how to maximize her potential. McLaughlin “doesn’t make mistakes more than once,” he says.
“We ask her to get over the hurdle one way — get her toe up higher, arm back further — she can do it,” McCabe says. “She can makes that adjustment, and that’s a special skill.”
McLaughlin overcame the pressures in Eugene but knows the lights will be brighter in Rio, the competition stiffer and the stakes higher. Still, the experience competing alongside the United States’ best was an educational one, she says, and she thinks her nerves will be up for the challenge.
“Just being told that it’s just a race, nothing different, [helps]. The same lap with the same amount of hurdles, the same distance,” she says. “It’s really no different than a high school race, just a little bit faster pace. I think that will be the same thing in Rio. It’s a different location, but it’ll be the same thing I’ve been doing.”
And regardless of what happens in Rio, for a few more years, she still will be a teen competing against adults, a phenom juggling her mature talents with childish pursuits. In the immediate future, she will embark on her senior year of high school — she has yet to start her assigned summer reading — and get the juggling club ready for the pep rally.
Down the road, just about anything is possible, on the track or off. She will begin looking at colleges, and certainly turning professional will be an option. And if juggling is somehow added to the Olympic program someday — “That would be amazing,” she says with a laugh. “Oh my goodness.”