On the track, it’s easy to forget that Sydney McLaughlin is just 16 years old. She’s a blur of 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 16 years old. She’s bound for the Olympics, where she’ll 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 bowling pins and other items while riding a unicycle.
In fact, she started the juggling club at her school, Union Catholic in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and after the Summer Games in Rio this month, “I’m gonna focus on that a lot this year; try to get more members, and hopefully get a full squad together so we can perform at the pep rally,” she said.
From the mouths of phenoms.
Juggling isn’t an Olympic sport, so McLaughlin will have to settle for hurdles, where she’s already one of the world’s best. She clinched her spot on the U.S. Olympic team at the track and field trials last month in Oregon, becoming the youngest female to make the U.S. Olympic track team since Carol Lewis — Carl Lewis’ sister — in 1980, the year the United States ultimately boycotted the Moscow Games.
McLaughlin will turn 17 before the 400-meter hurdles heats begin in Rio on Aug. 15, which still will make her the youngest American track and field athlete to compete in the Games since 16-year-old Rhonda Brady in 1976 in Montreal.
But don’t expect to hear McLaughlin bragging. Her coach says if anything, McLaughlin is too humble. The teenager doesn’t seem to appreciate how talented she is, and her mental game doesn’t always match her physical abilities.
Last month in Oregon, 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. “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. Willie McLaughlin said he certainly could appreciate the pressures his daughter felt. He once was a track star, too, and he ran in the 400 meters at the 1984 Olympic trials. He reached the semifinals but didn’t advance.
“Running in 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.”
Sydney McLaughlin always had the Olympics in her sights, but she was thinking of 2020, when she’d likely be a college student, or maybe 2024, when she’d at least be of drinking age.
In the finals at the Olympic trials, she finished in 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 said. “It’s always been on my mind, but definitely not at the age of 16.”