LEXINGTON, Ky. — As she enters the blocks, the process begins with deep breaths. Calm down, she tells herself. God’s got you. Whatever happens, happens. Just run your race. The series of clichés eases her mind as she pushes toward the first hurdle. The start is a blur, not only her speed, but her mind. She’s already leapt over the sixth hurdle once she realizes where she is.
At her best time, 52.75 seconds, the race is over. For an 18-year-old with festering doubts and nerves, whose coach considers it a challenge to train her, 52.75 seconds isn’t just good — it’s the best women’s 400-meter hurdles time recorded in 2018. Not just in the NCAA, but in the world.
The conundrum of Sydney McLaughlin is one that plagues geniuses across all fields, sports or not. What is there to chase when greatness has already been achieved?
McLaughlin, an Olympian at 16, might very well be the future face of U.S. Track and Field. The Kentucky freshman has 245,000 Instagram followers — more than the combined total of Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, two soon-to-be first round NBA draft picks from Kentucky.
In the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, she became the youngest American track athlete to compete in the Olympics since 1972. She failed to qualify for the finals, but two years later, McLaughlin owns the collegiate 400-meter hurdles record by nearly half a second. She set the mark last month at the SEC Championships.
Most of McLaughlin’s races aren’t close. The camera often has to pan down the stretch to include her competitors.
“It’s a balance between good and bad, having somebody there [challenging you],” McLaughlin said. “That’s why the 400 hurdles is such a gamble sometimes. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
But when the gun sounds Saturday evening at the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., to start the 400-meter hurdles final, most know — barring an accident — who will cross the finish line first. McLaughlin is the Secretariat of her field, and her time, not the order of finish, will be the only result people will wait for.
McLaughlin won her semifinal heat Thursday by more than 3 seconds, and that time didn’t come close to her personal best. If McLaughlin matches her collegiate record 52.75 on Saturday, she’ll set the meet and Hayward Field record — a track that opened in 1919.
Perhaps an even more special performance could be in store. The women’s 400-meter hurdles record, set in 2003 by Russia’s Yuliya Nosova-Pechonkina, is 52.34. McLaughlin trails the mark by 0.42 seconds.
“My biggest fear is that she does run the perfect race and doesn’t break it,” Kentucky coach Edrick Floréal said.
So, what is her perfect race?
In the 51.9 range, he said with no hesitation.
McLaughlin sits on the top row of a set of bleachers just off Kentucky’s blue track. It’s a muggy June day in Lexington with a cluster of clouds and a glancing breeze serving as the only reprieve.
McLaughlin’s stay at Kentucky is likely almost over. The Dunellen, N.J., native could’ve turned pro out of high school with sponsors eager to sign her. Though McLaughlin didn’t say when she’ll turn pro, Floréal called her a one-and-done — a term all too familiar with Kentucky basketball fans.
“I think that’s been on the radar for a while, but I think it’s gonna be when the time is right,” McLaughlin said. “When I feel like I’m ready to make running my job.”
It’s easy to forget McLaughlin is only 18, but that’s what happens when you qualify for the Olympics while friends are getting their driver’s licenses.
McLaughlin chose college because she wanted to be normal.
“I do want to have friends, and go out and live my life rather than running around an oval all day,” she said.
Floréal, for different reasons, thinks she made the right choice.
“I don’t think she would’ve been a good pro out of high school,” Floréal said. “I don’t think she was prepared. I don’t think she had any idea about running and racing and learning and have someone shout information at you every day. I think being babied, for a lack of a better word, I’ve really babied her.”
McLaughlin chose Kentucky with the help of her dad, Willie, who initiated contact with Floréal. The Kentucky women’s track program, while not a traditional power, was runner-up to Oregon in the 2015 NCAA Championships. The Wildcats women finished fourth last year under Floréal, who was hired by Kentucky in July 2012 after a six-year stint at Stanford.
A two-time Olympian in the triple jump, Floréal was known for training elite hurdlers, like Kendra Harrison, before McLaughlin arrived in Lexington. Harrison broke the world record in the 100-meter hurdles in 2016. Kentucky junior Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, who ran for Puerto Rico in the 2016 Olympics, won the 2016 NCAA title in the 100-meter hurdles under Floréal. Camacho-Quinn came within 0.1 seconds of the 100-meter hurdles collegiate record last month at the SEC Championships.
McLaughlin is the youngest of the group, and that’s why Floréal paused when asked what it’s like to coach her. “Challenging,” he said.
“You get an athlete that good, you have expectations that the person is gonna be educated at a certain level,” Floréal said. “Then you realize that no, it’s not. It all falls in your hands and you’ve gotta decide, ‘Where do I start and what battles do I want to fight?’ It’s a bit challenging because she’s so young and doing so well.”
Therein lies another conundrum: How is McLaughlin a world-class hurdler despite being raw and, sometimes, technically unsound? With a laugh, she mentions that many people have pointed out her tendency to chop — taking shorter steps before timing a jump — on the backstretch. She returns to a 15-stride pattern once she gets to hurdle six. Then the rest looks easy.
Floréal compared coaching McLaughlin to having two pieces of sandpaper — one rough and one smooth. It’s just a matter of knowing which to use, and when to use it.
“I sort of have to take a step back and allow her to mess up at practice and not make a big deal about it,” Floréal said. “At some point, I have to make a big deal about it because you’re gonna talk about Olympic gold medals and world records. Right now, with where she’s at, I’ve just got to make it fun where she doesn’t dread coming to practice where it’s like, ‘Oh, God. I’m gonna get screamed at because I didn’t do things right and I’m just gonna feel so bad about myself.'”
Floréal thinks about where McLaughlin will be in 2021 when the World Championships will be in Eugene — the site of McLaughlin’s Olympic qualifying race and the setting of her weekend bid to win the NCAA national championship as a freshman.
McLaughlin has shaved a whole second off her personal record in just a few months working with Floréal.
“I’ve got to be careful not to teach her 1,000 things at once,” Floréal said. “Then she becomes overwhelmed and then she crumbles. All this stuff is just a matter of trying to make the right decision and give her a little bit of time so she can eat and digest and not throw it up.”
Away from the track, McLaughlin’s biggest hurdle is mental.
“The waking up, realizing you have to run today and you’re gonna race some pretty fast girls,” she said. “There is a target on your back. … Not even just winning, just wanting to be better than I was the day before — not letting myself down with my own expectations.”
Those expectations might prove to be McLaughlin’s only competition, at least at the college level. But there’s something else she’s focused on, something bigger.
“People ask me what I run and they don’t even know what a 400 looks like,” she said. “I just think to be able to put that out there to the world. We do not run just once every four years.”
McLaughlin could be that reminder to casual fans. She could be next in line to carry the relevancy of her sport beyond the Olympics.
“Deep down inside, Sydney doesn’t want to be normal,” Floréal said. “Sydney’s gonna be a rock star.”