In the world of steeplechase, it took Sydney McLaughlin years to shave seconds off records, and winning the race didn’t always mean rewriting history.
This once-in-a-lifetime athlete is dispelling that mindset as quickly as she breaks the records she sets again and again.
For the fourth time in 13 months, 22-year-old McLaughlin broke the world record. On Friday, she won the 400-meter hurdles at the world championships in 50.68 seconds. She broke her old mark by 0.73 seconds, a ridiculous number for a race of this distance and a world time that took McLaughlin 33 years to beat.
She beat the Dutch runner-up Femke Bol by 1.59 seconds. McLaughlin’s main rival, Dalilah Muhammad, finished third in 53.13 seconds, a time that would have easily clinched the world title just seven years ago.
And yet, when McLaughlin summed up her impressions of the evening — a night she turned into one of the circuit’s must-see events — she was far from ready to claim she ran the perfect race.
“I didn’t get a chance to watch him, so I’ll have to do that and go back and talk to my coach,” McLaughlin said. “But I think there’s always room for improvement. I think we’re pushing the boundaries of the sport, especially in our event.”
After McLaughlin received her gold medal and listened to The Star-Spangled Banner, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe presented her with a check for $100,000, the prize for breaking the world record. It was the fourth consecutive major in which she improved her score.
On a clear, perfect, 72-degree night at Hayward Stadium, McLaughlin left Ball and Muhammad within 150 yards. By the time the American reached the final curve, it was clear that it was going to be strictly a race against time.
“It was crazy,” Bol said. “She was so far ahead at the end, I almost questioned whether I had really done a good race. Then I saw the time and thought, ‘Wow, that explains a lot.’
When McLaughlin finished, she bent down on the ground, looked at the scoreboard and said, “Great, great.” She clasped her knees and smiled. A minute later, mascot Legend the Bigfoot photo bombed her holding a sign that read, “World records are my favorite food.”
The 400 hurdles record of 52.34 held by Russia’s Yulia Pechonkina had been set for 16 years when she was set in 2019. At the US Championships in Iowa, Muhammad, not McLaughlin, lowered it to 52.20.
At the time, Muhammad’s trainer Boogie Johnson said it had long been thought the Russian’s record looked “a little soft” and ripe for the taking. in 2019 at the world championships Muhammad beat him again with 52.16.
It was a race that McLaughlin lost by just 0.07 and prompted her to make the switch.
Since hooking up with coach Bobby Kersee, she has bettered last year’s Olympic record (51.90), Olympic record (51.46) and national meet last month. (51,41). It’s now a 1.4% better four-week high and its first trip into the 50s.
“I really thought it was possible,” Muhammad said. “And after that race, I think 49 is possible.
McLaughlin has set three of his four records on this track at Hayward Stadium. What used to be the best one-on-one showdown — her vs. Muhammad — has turned into a one-woman show for now.
The big question is: how?
Some of the answers lie in an improved track surface, new technology — spikes that stymie the great Edwin Moses versus “having trampolines on your shoes” — and a new training regimen for Kersee, who has worked with nearly every American great. in the run-up to last year’s Olympics.
But mostly pure talent.
“You just put everything you’ve done into the race to the point where you let your body do what it does,” McLaughlin said.
Another way to look at McLaughlin’s dominance is that it took her just 1.57 seconds longer than Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas to win the 400, held about half an hour before the main event, after completing the course over 10 hurdles.
In the men’s race, American Michael Norman won the world title in 44.29 seconds, pulling away from his 2012 record in the final 80 meters. Olympic champion Kirani James.
Norman received a standing ovation from the near-full stands, thought the emotional center of the evening had arrived a few minutes early. Javelin thrower Kara Winger, 36, coming off her second ACL surgery, threw 64.05 meters (210 feet, 1 inch) on her sixth and final attempt to finish second behind Australia’s Kelsey-Lee Barber.
It was the first medal in any major event for the eight-time national champion, who installed a cable and pulley system in her backyard to keep up with her training during the pandemic.
And then came McLaughlin. She and Muhammad increased the U.S. medal tally to 26 in eight days. The Americans need five more to surpass their championship record. The weekend is packed with relays that will include the surprise return of Allyson Felix in the 4×400.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see McLaughlin (and Muhammad) on the American 4×400 relay team as well, as they did last summer in Tokyo, where they helped the USA win gold.
Speaking of that 400 apartment, McLaughlin teased the idea that she might have a future there, too.
“My coach thinks there’s a lot of work to be done,” she said. “At some point we could do 4, maybe 100 hurdles. He says just enjoy the 400 hurdles while I’m doing it, and then if you want to expand, go from there. The sky’s really the limit.”
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