Sport: Track & Field
Born: August 7, 1999
Sydney Michelle McLaughlin was born August 7, 1999 in New Brunswick and grew up in Dunellen. Her mother Mary was a runner in high school and her father, Willie, just missed making the 1984 Olympic team in the 400 meters. Her older brother, Taylor, also specialized in the 400 meters as well as the hurdles, and was named New Jersey Track Athlete of the Year in 2015 while competing for Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains. Their older sister, Morgan, was also an elite runner. Sydney followed in their footsteps, also specializing in the 400 meters and the hurdles at Union Catholic.
In her first high school season, Sydney was a sensation. She set a national record for freshmen in the 400 meter hurdles at the National Junior Championships with a time of 55.63, finishing a close second to 19-year-old Shamier Little. Had Sydney been a year older, she would have qualified to run for the US in the IAAF Junior World Championships. She qualified the following year and won gold in the hurdles with a time of 55.94. Earlier that season, Sydney had run a 55.28, barely falling short of a youth record that had stood for more than 30 years. In 2015, Sydney smashed hurdling records left and right, winning the USATF junior championship along the way. She was named Gatorade National Girls Athlete of the Year—a first for a Garden State female athlete and only the second after Karl-Anthony Towns, who won it the year before. Track legend Allyson Felix presented her with the award.
In 2016, Sydney set her sights on becoming the youngest American track athlete to qualify for the Olympics since another New Jerseyan, Carl Lewis, made the ill-fated 1980 team at 16. She won the junior nationals in North Carolina for the third year in a row and turned in the fifth-fastest time in the world in the 400 hurdles. Sydney finished third at the Olympic Trials to make the team, and set a world youth record in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 54.15. Interestingly, it was the first time she had “lost” a race since she was 14 years old. Sydney was one of three 400-meter hurdlers to make the trip to Rio for Team USA, along with Ashley Spencer and Dalilah Muhammad. Unfortunately, Sydney ran poorly in a semifinal heat and failed to qualify for the final. She watched in frustration as Muhammad won gold and Spencer took the bronze medal.
Back at school that fall, Sydney had to make some choices about the next stage of her career. Heavily recruited by a number of schools—including Michigan, where Taylor was a star—she picked Kentucky over her second choice, USC. The deciding factor was coach Kendra Harrison, the world record holder in the 100-meter hurdles. Meanwhile, Sydney became just the third person to win back-to-back Gatorade National Athlete of the Year awards, following peyton Manning and LeBron James.
Meanwhile, Sydney continued to compete in top-tier national and international events She was part of a medley relay team, which consists of four distances: 1,200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters and 1,600 meters. In January 2017, at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, Sydney ran the second leg of the distance medley relay along with Emma Coburn, Brenda Martinez and Jenny Simpson. Track fans knew they might be witnessing history—Coburn and Simpson were Olympic medalists, while Martinez was a member of the medley team that held the world record of 10:42.57 going into the event. Sydney ran her leg of the race, 400 meters, in 52.32 and when Simpson broke the tape the four women had shattered the world record with a time of 10:40.31.
That spring, she finished her high-school career by setting a new national high school record in 300-meter hurdles, which also happened to be the second-fastest time in history. At the Penn Relays, Sydney was a member of the 4 x 400 Union Catholic relay team and showed off her sprinting prowess with a split of 50.37, taking her team from last place to third while she carried the baton. AT a meet later that spring, she bettered that mark, running her leg in a time of 49.85 seconds. This time she took Union Catholic from sixth place to first. As a college sprinter, Sydney continued her development. At the 2018 NCAA Championships, she finished second in the 400 to Kendall Ellis by 2/100ths of a second, but set a junior world record in the process with a time of 50.36. At the 2018 SEC Championships, she won the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 52.75, smashing the NCAA record. At the NCAA Championships, she won the 400 hurdles by an unheard-of 2 seconds.
With little left to prove at the collegiate level—and with her marketability rivaling that of any track athlete in the country—Sydney decided to turn professional. She signed a lucrative apparel and footwear deal with New Balance. It was a relationship based in mutual success—during her high-school career, Sydney had won 13 championships at New Balance events. She also inked a deal with William Morris, which reps LeBron James and Serena Williams.
With unlimited funding and access to top coaching and competition, Sydney is betting she can improve on the world 400 hurdles record of 52.34, set back in 2003 by Russian star Yuliya Pechonkina. No one in the sport is betting against her. With the Olympics moved to 2021, she is a favorite to make the US team in the 400 hurdles as well as the 200 and 400 sprints, and could go home with a record haul of gold medals.