Entering the women’s 400m hurdles final at U.S. Olympic Trials, Sydney McLaughlin had been a part of two world record-breaking races: first at the 2019 U.S. Championships and then again at the 2019 World Championships. Both times, McLaughlin finished second to the world record-breaker: Dalilah Muhammad.
But on Sunday night in Eugene, Oregon, it was McLaughlin who walked away as the fastest woman of all time. The 21-year-old crossed the line in 51.90, breaking Muhammad’s record by 0.26 seconds to become the first woman to ever run under 52 seconds (video embedded above).
McLaughlin will be joined at the Tokyo Olympics by Muhammad (whose second-place time of 52.42 is tied for sixth-fastest in history) and Anna Cockrell (who cut nearly a second off her personal best to qualify for her first Olympic team).
McLaughlin’s journey from high school prodigy to fastest woman in history
While greatness has long been expected of McLaughlin, it was never a given.
She made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Games, where at age 17, she was the youngest U.S. Olympian in track & field since 1972.
She then returned home to Dunellen, New Jersey, for her senior year at Union Catholic High School. She graduated in 2017 as the first repeat winner of the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award, which is given annually to the nation’s top high school athlete in any sport.
As a freshman at the University of Kentucky, McLaughlin set a collegiate record in the 400m hurdles before turning pro in June 2018.
The 2019 season marked McLaughlin’s transition from “good for her age” to “one of the best of all time.”
She made her world championship debut, winning silver in the 400m hurdles. Her time of 52.23 made her the second fastest woman of all time, behind only the woman two lanes over from her.
The so-called rivalry between McLaughlin and Muhammad
When the two fastest women of all time go head-to-head, the rivalry story almost writes itself.
Muhammad has long dismissed that narrative, including in last week’s pre-competition press conference.
“I don’t look at it as a rivalry,” the then world record-holder said. “It’s actually unfortunate to me that it’s looked upon that way. It makes it seem like we’re always going head-to-head, when in reality, I wish nothing but the best for Sydney.”
Muhammad added, in what felt like a prophetic, torch-passing moment: “I’d love to see where the event can go.”
After last night’s win, McLaughlin shared a similar sentiment.
“We wouldn’t be able to have these world records go back and forth without one another,” she said. “Iron sharpens iron. People can call it whatever they want to call it, but it’s two great athletes pushing each other to be better. There’s no animosity, there’s no hard feelings.”
What can history teach you about how to break a world record in the 400m hurdles?
Earlier this year, McLaughlin announced that she had started working with Bobby Kersee, husband of six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee and longtime coach of Allyson Felix, the most decorated American woman in Olympic track & field history.
Since making the coaching switch, McLaughlin has made some major changes to how she approaches the 400m hurdles.
“We’ve been working on me being really be comfortable with the race itself, understanding the history behind it,” McLaughlin said last week. “Just knowing some of the past in order to work towards the future.”
One athlete McLaughlin has studied is two-time Olympic gold medalist Edwin Moses, who first broke the men’s 400m hurdles world record in 1976 and then improved his own mark four more times before retiring in 1988.
While Moses is best known for his 400m hurdles dominance – he went undefeated for nearly 10 years, winning 122 consecutive races between 1977 and 1987 – McLaughlin pointed to a more technical innovation he introduced to the event: Moses’ “strength in being able to keep his stride pattern.”
As a competitor, Moses reimagined the 400m hurdles, becoming the first man to consistently take 13 steps between each hurdle.
To break the women’s world record, McLaughlin adapted that approach.
“In a women’s race, people technically want 15 strides all the way around to be a perfect race,” McLaughlin said after winning her preliminary heat.
When Muhammad set her second world record in 2019, she ran 15 strides as far as hurdle eight, but said after that she had hoped keep that 15-stride pattern through hurdle nine.
McLaughlin, however, is taking a new approach: aiming for 14 strides between hurdles.
While that might not sound like much, “It’s a huge deal,” NBC Olympics track & field analyst Sanya Richards-Ross explained.
“What [Sydney is] attempting to do is to be even more aggressive between each hurdle, but maintain that around the track, which is extremely hard to do,” Richards-Ross said.
On Sunday night, “The goal was to go 14 [strides] through the first four [hurdles], which I did,” McLaughlin said. “And then my stride pattern just kicked in and went 15 the rest of the way, which was really what we wanted to do. I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
After reflecting on her race, and the history that she achieved, McLaughlin looked ahead to the future and the legacy she wants to leave.
“So many amazing women came before me and so many amazing women will come after me. I just want to be able to leave my mark.”
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Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC