Sydney McLaughlin breaks the world record in the 400m hurdles

Sydney McLaughlin breaks the world record in the 400m hurdles

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EUGENE, Ore. – On Wednesday night, Edwin Moses meandered to the warm-up track as the women prepared for the semifinals of the 400-meter hurdles, the race that established him as one of the most indomitable champions in athletics history. He watched Sydney McLaughlin scowl down the track. “That gladiator look I used to have,” Moses called it. Bobby Kersee, McLaughlins trainer and his good friend, approached him.

“Bobby, your girl is doing really, really well,” Moses said.

“Hey, after following you all these years, I found out about the event,” Kersee replied.

Moses took the comment as a great compliment. Kersee once coached athletes who tried in vain to defeat Moses in the 1970s and 1980s when he won 122 consecutive 400-meter hurdles in 10 years.

“He put everything he learned training guys to beat me into them,” Moses said. “She absorbed everything.”

After decades of searching, Kersee found an athlete who could one day challenge the achievements of Moses — or any other runner who’s ever tied a pair of running spikes. On Friday night at the World Championships, McLaughlin radically reset the world record she had been playing with the previous year, separating even further from a pack she had long lost sight of and elevating the track from Hayward Field into something of a fantasy land .

At the beginning of 2021, no woman had ever run around a track and over 10 hurdles faster than 52 seconds. McLaughlin has since broken the record four times. She lowered it to 50.68 as the sun set over the gleaming stadium, breaking her record by a staggering 0.73 seconds.

McLaughlin’s time would have beaten two women in Friday’s 400-meter final. The one without hurdles. On NBC, analyst Ato Bolden immediately hailed it as the best track and field performance he had ever seen. In the formula World Athletics uses to score points in everything from pole vaulting to throwing, McLaughlin placed second with a 50.68 behind Florence Griffith-Joyner’s record in the 100 meters.

“It’s a flow state,” McLaughlin said. “Just putting everything you’ve done in training into the race to the point where you just let your body do what it does. You don’t think too much. You are only releasing the gifts and talents that God has given you.”

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McLaughlin is only 22 years old and is at a higher level in her career. Even in a competition where Noah Lyles shattered a Usain Bolt record and Athing Mu cemented her dominance in the 800 meters, McLaughlin stands behind no one in US track and field.

“She’s the prototype for the event,” Moses said.

McLaughlin has already set her sights on new worlds to conquer. She revealed that she and Kersee have been talking about moving to a new event – the 400m or 100m hurdles – or even adding an event and attempting a double singles medal. The schedule for the 2023 World Championships and the Paris 2024 Olympics would allow her to run both the 400m hurdles and the 400m.

“Bobby is always coming up with new ideas, so it’s hard to pin one down,” McLaughlin said. “There’s talk of doubles, there’s talk of transfers. To be honest I have no idea. That’s something we go home after the season, discuss, see what we want to do.”

If McLaughlin carries on, she made her last major 400-meter hurdles an ode to the event. McLaughlin started in lane 5 and caught everyone on the outside in the middle of the backstretch. By the second corner she had overtaken everyone. When the last corner came, she had already made it. After clearing the final hurdle, a brick-red distance separated her from Dutch Femke Bol and America’s bronze medalist Dalilah Muhammad, the friendly rival whose record McLaughlin set at the US Olympic Trials last year and has never looked back on.

“I definitely thought 50 was possible,” Muhammad said. “After this race, I think 49 is possible.” She paused. “For Sydney.”

A two-time Olympic gold medalist, McLaughlin has now become a world champion in a way that sports enthusiasts can hardly imagine. Afterwards, McLaughlin sat on her butt on the track, legs aflame and mouth open, processing what she had done.

“So often the race goes by and you forget what’s happening,” McLaughlin said. “I really just wanted to sit there for a moment and soak it all up.”

As McLaughlin continued to cement her status as a legend, another made a surprise return. A week after announcing that she had run her final race as the United States won bronze in the 4×400 mixed relay earlier in the World Championships, Allyson Felix will come out of her short-term retirement and compete in the preliminary round of the 4×400 relay on Saturday of the women start, said a spokesman for USA Track & Field.

Friday night belonged to McLaughlin. She made the 2016 US Olympic team at age 16, and from the moment she started hurdling in Dunellen, NJ, she was defined by her size. However, by 2019 she still had not surpassed Muhammad, who set the world record when he defeated McLaughlin at the World Championships.

During the pandemic layoff, McLaughlin switched trainers to Kersee, a legendary figure who has coached wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Griffith Joyner and Felix. Kersee is unconventional and notoriously demanding. He instructed McLaughlin to watch an old Moses movie and changed her cadence from 15 to 14 steps between hurdles. He used them in the 60m and 100m hurdles earlier in the season.

“Bobby accepts people who want to come to camp and know who they’re dealing with,” said Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who has become McLaughlin’s mentor. “He will not change for anyone. If you want to work with Bobby, you have to endure all the good and bad that comes with it.”

Dominant and telegenic, McLaughlin was reticent when it came to notoriety. She married short-term NFL wide receiver Andre Levrone Jr. this spring, which she documented extensively on social media. Apart from sporting brilliance and devotion to her faith, she reveals little about herself in public.

“I’ve been given a gift and a platform, but it’s not for my own glory,” McLaughlin said. “It has helped me stay out of a lot of things that could get me into trouble. … I limit my social media. I limit how much I’m into these things. Because ultimately they can’t help me if I get on that line.”

McLaughlin scowls at the blocks. She rarely shows emotion on the track, even after crossing the finish line. One lane across Friday night, Muhammad smiled and waved to the crowd as he was introduced. As McLaughlin’s name boomed over the public address to loud cheers, she stared at the floor, her expression unchanged.

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“She’s not playing around,” Moses said. “She sees, but she doesn’t see. I can say. Her mind is so focused that she could see right through you. That is how I was. I didn’t care.”

The 400 meter hurdles is a race for landmines. Moses viewed the course as an opportunity to make 31 errors – the takeoff and then the takeoff, flight and landing over all 10 hurdles. Runners rarely stumble over hurdles, but any lack of form can derail a competitor. McLaughlin has the athleticism to jump off either foot, and her strength and speed make her incredibly efficient. She makes a complicated race seem easy.

“It doesn’t look like it’s moving that fast,” Moses said. “Sydney looks like she’s barely working.”

McLaughlin removed all the drama from her race, but in the women’s javelin final, America’s Kara Winger made up for it. On her sixth and final throw, after admonishing the home crowd, Winger unleashed a throw of 64.05 meters (210 ft 1 in) that catapulted her from fifth to second. Winger’s massive throw earned American women medals in all four throwing competitions. At 36, Winger saw her last throw at a major championship yield her first medal.

While McLaughlin took her event to new heights, Michael Norman returned to his in the 400. Norman won gold with a brave finish, beating a crowded field in 44.29 seconds. In the final corner, Norman even sprinted with grenadier Kirani James, Britain’s Matt Hudson-Smith and South African world record holder Wayde van Niekerk. Norman managed to get a small head start and held them all back by raising his arms above his head.

“I just want to say thank you to all the people who have stuck with me over the past three years,” Norman said.

Norman emerged as one of America’s best and most promising sprinters in 2019, tying with Jeremy Wariner for the fourth-fastest man of all-time at 43.45 seconds. But he lost the US Championship to Fred Kerley that year and missed out on the World Championship finals with an injury. In Tokyo, Norman entered as a favorite but finished a disappointing fifth place before salvaging his Olympics by winning gold in the 4×400 relay. At just 24 years old, Norman is back on top of the world.

It was a good night for American men who walked around the track once. After completing their debacle-ridden history in Tokyo, the US men’s 4×100 team – Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles, Elijah Hall and Marvin Bracy-Williams – set a lap in a preliminary round of 37.87, the fastest time of the world this year. To demonstrate their chemistry, Lyles then led them in an impromptu group rap of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.”

“Nice day at the office,” Williams-Bracy said. “We’re just having fun.”

The show stopped as McLaughlin entered the blocks. She is only 22 years old. She’s a gold medalist and world champion, an athlete who works at a level that few her peers can imagine, let alone know. She could broaden her athletic horizons or push her specialty further to new frontiers, or both. She has achieved great things at such a young age, and yet she remains unsatisfied.

“I think there’s more work to be done,” McLaughlin said. “I think we all figure out there are 10 obstacles, but we can overcome them a lot quicker than people think. There is no such thing as a perfect race.”

This may be. But few have come closer than Sydney McLaughlin, the 22-year-old who’s got it all and wants more.

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