Teen spirit: 16-year-old McLaughlin earns spot to Rio
EUGENE, Ore. — Fast fact: Teenager Sydney McLaughlin can juggle on a unicycle.
That’s nothing compared to this: The 16-year-old is headed to Rio, and will be the youngest to compete for the U.S. Olympic track team since 1972, according to USA Track and Field.
And to think, the 400-meter hurdles phenom had a panic attack before the start of the trials. She thought the stage might be a tad too big for her.
It wasn’t. McLaughlin, a soon-to-be senior at Union Catholic in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, finished third on Sunday, behind winner Dalilah Muhammad and Ashley Spencer.
“Sometimes, I just forget that I’m 16,” said McLaughlin, who learned to juggle in fifth grade and has worked with kids at a juggling camp. “There’s not as much expectation. You know, I don’t get paid for this. I’m here just for fun.”
Once she got to work, she certainly had a ball. She planned to celebrate by going out for dinner. On her menu — a cheeseburger, maybe some sweet potato fries, and possibly topped off with a slice of cheesecake.
“I want be like her when I grow up,” the 23-year-old Spencer said. “At 16 years old, I wasn’t doing anything. I was running track, but it was like, meh? She’s an Olympian.”
It has always taken a bit of coaxing to get McLaughlin to the starting line — both as a kid, when her father bribed her with a chocolate bar with almonds to keep her running at 6, and just before the trials.
But her high school coach, Mike McCabe, has a counseling degree that he put to good use. He told her it was only nerves and everyone gets them.
“I think it was more self-doubt,” he explained. “It was the big stage, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I belong here.’
“We shared with her that everybody has this. It’s not just her because she’s so young. The elites have it, and they’ve been doing it for years.”
The pep talk hit the mark. Although, the world and American junior record holder isn’t exactly used to trailing like this. She finished in a world junior-record time of 54.15 seconds, which was still 1.27 behind Muhammad. She also was able to hold off fourth-place finisher Kori Carter.
“She’s a beast,” Carter said. “She’s the truth. I was in every single heat with her and she carries herself like a pro. I know she’s going to represent the U.S. amazingly.”
McLaughlin grew up idolizing Allyson Felix, who finished fourth in the 200 meters and missed out on making the U.S. squad in the event. But that’s why McLaughlin appreciates Felix — those kinds of setbacks don’t get her down. Felix still has the 400, an event she won last weekend, and will focus on that.
“You realize that sometimes you have to lose in order to get better,” said McLaughlin, who still plans to compete at world juniors later this month in Poland. “That’s a big thing.”
McLaughlin, who turns 17 on Aug. 7, tried to find humor in just about everything. After winning her heat in the semifinals during a steady drizzle, she said, “The rain messed up my hair, but that’s OK.”
Just Sydney being Sydney.
“She’s super-consistent as a racer,” McCabe said. “You don’t see many bad days. You come to a meet like this and you have to be on at the right time. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. Running isn’t her life. Running chose her. She just happens to be real good at it.”