On the track, it’s so 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 Sydney is still all of 16 years old. She’s bound for the Olympics, where she’ll be sure to take her lucky blanket, the Minions one. She likes Netflix and getting her nails done – “lots of sparkles” – and is passionate about juggling, capable of twirling balls or bowling pins 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, “I’m gonna focus on that a lot this year,” she says, “try to get more members, and hopefully get a full squad together so we can perform at the pep rally.”
Juggling is not yet an Olympic sport, so Sydney will have to settle for hurdles, where she’s already established herself as one of the world’s best. She locked up her spot on the US Olympic team at the track and field trials earlier this month in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest female to make the US Olympic track and field team since Carol Lewis – Olympic legend Carl Lewis’ sister – in 1980, the year the United States ultimately boycotted the Moscow Games.
Sydney will turn 17 before the 400-meter hurdles heats begin in Rio on Aug. 15, which will make her the youngest American track and field athlete to compete in the Olympics since 16-year old Rhonda Brady at the 1976 Games.
But don’t expect to hear Sydney bragging about any of this any time soon. Her coach says if anything, Sydney is too humble at times. The teenager doesn’t seem to appreciate how talented she is, and her mental game doesn’t always match her physical capabilities. Earlier this month in Eugene, the self-doubt was so intense, the pressure so suffocating that Sydney said she suffered a mental breakdown.
“I’d gone to the meet a few days before my race,” she explained last week. “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 nerves. Willie McLaughlin certainly could appreciate the pressures his daughter felt. He was once a track star, too, and raced the 400 meters in the 1984 Olympic trials. He reached the semifinal round, but didn’t qualify.
“Running the Olympic trials was the single most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “You’re running against the best of the best just to make those three spots. The stress is off the scale.”
Sydney made it to the starting line in Eugene, winning her first heat easily and building some confidence. Her brother helped her warm up the next day, and she ran even faster in the semifinals, again winning her heat. For everyone watching at Hayward Field, it was quickly becoming clear her Olympic dream might be expedited.
Sydney 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 a blazing 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 says. “It’s always been on my mind but definitely not at the age of 16.”
Sydney started in the sport a decade ago. Her dad motivated her then by baiting a 6-year-old Sydney with a candy bar – chocolate and almonds – after she crossed the finish line.
“So I won the race and I got a chocolate bar, and ever since, I kept running so I could get chocolate bars,” she says.
It wasn’t until high school that Sydney’s career took a serious turn and her times began raising some eyebrows. Mike McCabe, her coach at Union Catholic, began working with her in her first year at the school.
“It took me 15 minutes to realise that she definitely wasn’t the average athlete,” he said.
Since then, Sydney won the 400 hurdles at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Colombia last year and broke two national high school records at this year’s New Balance Nationals. Her time at the Olympic trials not only set a new world junior record but was the seventh-best time by any female in the world this year, regardless of age.
The young hurdler is still improving by leaps and bounds, too. McCabe says she’s a perfect student who’s just beginning to realise what she’s capable of and how to maximise her potential. Sydney “doesn’t make mistakes more than once,” he says.
“We ask her to get over the hurdle one way – get her toe up higher, arm back further – she can do it,” says McCabe. “She can makes that adjustment, and that’s a special skill.”
Sydney overcame the pressures in Eugene but knows the lights will be brighter in Rio, the competition stiffer and the stakes higher. Still, the experience competing alongside the United States’ best was an educational one, she says, and she thinks her nerves will be up for the challenge.
“I think just being told that it’s just a race, nothing different, [helps]. The same lap with the same amount of hurdles, the same distance,” she says. “It’s really no different than a high school race, just a little bit faster pace. I think that will be the same thing in Rio. It’s a different location, but it’ll be the same thing I’ve been doing.”
And regardless of what happens in Rio, for a few more years, she’ll still be a teen competing against adults. In the immediate future, she’ll begin her final year of high school – she hasn’t even started her assigned summer reading – and get the juggling club ready for the pep rally.
Down the road, just about anything is possible, on the track or off. She’ll begin looking at colleges, and certainly turning professional will be an option. And if juggling is somehow added to the Olympic programme someday – “That would be amazing,” she says with a laugh. “Oh my goodness.”