A prodigy since she started bounding over hurdles in Dunellen, N.J., McLaughlin surpassed her beloved antagonist and, at 21, planted her flag atop track and field. McLaughlin had twice seen Muhammad set the 400-meter hurdles world record in front of her. On Sunday night at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., McLauglin annihilated the record that Muhammad had held since 2019, finishing in 51.90 seconds and becoming the first woman to break the 52-second barrier.
When she crossed the line and looked at the clock, McLaughlin covered her mouth with two hands and 10 pristine-white fingernails. McLaughlin crouched down on the track, eyes wide, somewhere between shock and elation.
“It’s one of those moments that you dream about and you think about and you play in your head,” McLaughlin said. “I knew from the moment I woke up today that it was going to be a great day. It was just the final ‘I did it’ moment. I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life.”
As McLaughlin knelt, she felt an arm around her. It belonged to Muhammad. They have raced each other three times since 2019, and in all of those races the world record fell. Muhammad hugged McLaughlin on the track.
The clash of Muhammad and McLaughlin at these trials provided an encounter of surpassing quality and rarity. Two women in the same event, one rushing into her prime and the other refusing to surrender hers, had separated themselves as not merely the best in their country or even the world but of all time.
“Iron sharpens iron,” McLaughlin said. “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. There’s no hard feelings. It’s just two people trying to be their best. We wouldn’t be able to have these world records go back and forth without one another.”
Muhammad, already the reigning Olympic gold medalist, broke a 16-year-old record when she ran 52.20 seconds and beat McLaughlin to win the 2019 national championship. McLaughlin beat the old record at the ensuing world championships — but so did Muhammad, who reset her own mark to 52.16 and kept McLaughlin from the top of the medal stand.
The year-long delay in 2020 could not dim the anticipation for their meeting. Entering her 30s, Muhammad needed to become the best of all time to hold off McLaughlin. Exiting her teens, McLaughlin had to overtake the greatest ever in her event to stake her claim atop the sport. The catch to their showdown is that neither treats it as a showdown.
“I don’t look it as a rivalry,” Muhammad, 31, said earlier in the week. “We’re kind of coming in in different times in our careers. For me, it doesn’t seem like a rivalry. It’s actually unfortunate to me that it’s so looked upon that way because it makes it seem like we’re always going head-to-head, where in reality I wish Sydney nothing but the best. I love seeing where the event can go.”
Muhammad may not be at her best until the Olympics. She tore her hamstring in early spring and suffered through covid-19, which she tried training through to her further detriment. She still stuck with or led McLaughlin until the final 100 meters, and she finished in 52.42 seconds for second place.
“It’s going to be a battle in Tokyo,” Muhammad said.
McLaughlin announced herself as a prodigy before she could apply for a driver’s license. Both her parents ran track, and her father competed at the Olympic trials. She qualified for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games at 16. Nine days after she turned 17, McLaughlin finished fifth in her semifinal heat in Rio.
After her semifinal race Saturday night, McLaughlin sat down and waved to a frequent visitor at her practices: Allyson Felix’s daughter, Camryn. Last summer, McLaughlin switched coaches to Felix’s longtime guide Bob Kersee. It allowed McLaughlin to train alongside one of America’s greatest track athletes and a runner with the determination to make her fifth Olympics at 35. McLaughlin adopted a mantra spun from observing Felix: Attack every moment.
“Her intensity at every practice is just the same as it is on the track,” McLaughlin said. “Just seeing how she attacks everything gives me motivation.”
Her new training also allowed McLaughlin new comfort. Few coaches have the wisdom of Kersee, whose pupils include some of best female athletes of the past three decades: his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, Gail Devers, Felix. His experience at everything from managing schedules to teaching technique provided McLaughlin something she lacked at her first Olympics.
“At the age of 16, there was just so much I didn’t know,” McLaughlin said. “Now having that wisdom and that knowledge and having been around people who have been in the sport for such a long time — Allyson, Bobby — it’s definitely given the confidence in areas I’m not very familiar with. Sixteen-year-old me, she felt like she was really on her own. Now having this group, it makes it so much more comfortable.”
At Kersee’s urging, McLaughlin has delved into the history of the 400-meter hurdles. She studied tape of Edwin Moses and heard tips directly from Joyner-Kersee. She applied common wisdom to her uncommon skill. Female 400-meter hurdlers are uniformly taught to take 15 strides between hurdles. Under Kersee, McLaughlin extended her stride to take 14.
“Just knowing some of the past to work towards the future,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin surely will face another challenge from Muhammad next month. On Sunday night, the future looked a lot like Sydney McLaughlin.