Sydney McLaughlin can juggle. She can also ride a unicycle. And she has been known to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time.
“But I haven’t done both of them at the same time in a long time,” the 400m hurdler added. “I’m getting older now.”
About to turn 20 next month, she is juggling quite a few things these days — a new coach, living on the West Coast, making the transition from college to the pro circuit and the weight of lofty expectations. Her name constantly pops up among the ones to watch heading into the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
That’s hardly a surprise: In 2016 and at just 16, McLaughlin became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics in more than four decades.
Pressure doesn’t bother her. She just keeps her eye on the prize like she did as a kid when her dad would coax her to run with the reward of a chocolate candy bar.
Winning is her incentive now — and it’s just as sweet.
“For me it’s kind of just focusing on myself and making sure I’m doing everything possible to be successful,” McLaughlin said ahead of the U.S. track and field championships, which start Thursday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.
A year ago, McLaughlin turned pro after spending a season at Kentucky and winning the NCAA 400 hurdles crown.
Since then, the New Jersey native has been adjusting to life in Los Angeles and working with 2004 Olympic 100m hurdles gold medalist Joanna Hayes. McLaughlin won her Diamond League 400m hurdles debut in Oslo, Norway, last month over U.S. teammate and Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad.
That despite knocking down the first hurdle.
“It’s good to know the strength was there,” said McLaughlin, who also won in Monaco on July 12. “But definitely have to work on the hurdles form and everything.”
McLaughlin will be one of the favorites when the 400m hurdles start Friday. It’s a loaded field that also includes Muhammad, 2015 world champion silver medalist Shamier Little and bronze medalist Cassandra Tate, ’16 Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer. Since reigning world champion Kori Carter has an automatic spot to worlds in Doha this fall, there are three more spots up for grabs in the event.
“There’s so much depth,” McLaughlin said. “It’s particularly hard to make that team.”
McLaughlin teamed up in early November with Hayes, who ran the 400m hurdles before switching over to the 100m hurdles. Any chance McLaughlin makes a similar move?
“We always joke about it,” McLaughlin said. “We’ll have to see about that one.”
One hurdle at a time. Her focus remains on steadily learning the nuances of the taxing 400 hurdles event.
“She’s talented and there’s no need to put everything on the line or everything into it in one year,” Hayes explained. “Give her room to grow and make strides.”
Hayes gets asked this often: Can McLaughlin one day break the world record? The mark sits at 52.34 seconds set by Yuliya Pechonkina of Russia in 2003. McLaughlin’s top time is 52.75 seconds, which she ran in May 2018.
“We don’t talk about, ‘OK, we’re going to try to break the world record,’” Hayes said. “We go in there and try to execute a great race. If you do that, eventually records will come.”
Growing up, McLaughlin wasn’t all that jazzed about running. Her father, Willie, would provide plenty of motivation in the form of candy.
“He said, ‘If you run I’ll give you a chocolate bar.’ I ran the 100m and actually won,” recalled McLaughlin, who started a juggling club while in high school and recently got back into the hobby. “I think I was more excited about the chocolate bar than the fact I won. I guess he lured me into the sport.”
She is still motivated by reward — a good performance earns her either a nap or a cheeseburger.
It’s the simple things in life.
McLaughlin comes from an athletic family. Her dad was a 400m semifinalist at the 1984 Olympic Trials and her mother, Mary, ran in high school. Her two brothers and sister also have competitive running backgrounds.
And when the siblings get together, it becomes rivalry time. Sydney pairs with her brother Taylor and they’re pitted against her sister Morgan and brother Ryan. The competitions range from bowling to board games to push-ups.
“We usually win,” cracked McLaughlin, the Gatorade national high school track athlete of the year in ’16 and ’17. “Anything that involves winning you can best believe that we’re competing with each other.”
In her spare time, she’s active on social media and offers tips to kids not that much younger than her.
“I definitely think having people look up to you and ask you for advice drives you to want to do better and continue to have success,” McLaughlin said. “I have fun with being that role model that does things the right way.”
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