DES MOINES — Dalilah Muhammad came back from a mild concussion to break the 16-year-old world record in the 400m hurdles at the USATF Outdoor Championships on Sunday night. She has a knack for overcoming obstacles — beyond just the 10 barriers on the track — and surprising herself.
“I’m still in shock,” Muhammad said after clocking 52.20 seconds on a wet track, similar to the conditions for her Rio Olympic title.
Muhammad, who took .14 off Yuliya Pechonkina‘s mark from 2003, said she was “kind of shut down” after falling in training two weeks ago. She lost focus while running — without hurdles — and took a “freak” fall, scraping skin.
“Nothing major,” the Queens, N.Y., native said. “Yesterday was like, OK, I’m ready to run again.”
Muhammad moved after hurdle six in Sunday’s final, surging past 2015 World silver medalist Shamier Little to her outside coming around the last curve. (This field was one of the deepest of the four-day meet with four Olympic or world medalists, plus Sydney McLaughlin, the fastest woman in the world in 2018 and, until Sunday, 2019.)
As Muhammad strained for home, she heard the voice of coach Lawrence Johnson in her head, saying, you’ve got to execute that last 40 meters. Drop your arms.
“I was just trying to hold on,” she said.
The celebration didn’t match the enormity of the moment. Muhammad saw her time, clapped her hands and leaned over momentarily before accepting a hug from McLaughlin, who finished second in 52.88 to make her first world team.
“I’ve been kind of hitting that time in practice consistently,” said Muhammad, whose previous personal best was 52.64 from 2017. “I was hoping for it this whole weekend.”
In 2012, Muhammad finished fifth at her last NCAA Championships for USC. Twenty days later, she was sixth in her first-round heat at the Olympic trials, a full six seconds slower than what she ran at Drake Stadium on Sunday.
She stayed in the sport, unsponsored, and in Los Angeles, financially supported by her parents. Her mom, Nadirah, worked as a child protection specialist in New York City. Father Askia served as a Muslim Chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction and an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies at the New York Theological Seminary.
Something clicked under those circumstances in 2013. Muhammad lowered her best time from 56.04 to 53.83 to win the U.S. title. Then she earned world silver, picking up a Nike sponsorship along with it.
But 2014, 2015 and even early 2016 brought more hurdles — a quad injury, “personal problems,” and, four months before the Olympic trials, reportedly changing coaches from Yolanda Demus (mother of now-former American record holder Lashinda Demus) to Johnson, who also coached Olympic 100m hurdles champion Brianna McNeal.
It worked. Muhammad clocked a personal-best 52.88 to win trials. She went to the Olympics owning the fastest time in the world for the year by 1.08 seconds over her next-closest competitor in Rio. She lived up to overwhelming favorite status, taking gold by a comfortable .42.
“The gold was so far from my mind; that definitely wasn’t the goal going into 2016,” she said. “I just wanted to make it as a 400m hurdler.”
Muhammad went even faster to win the 2017 U.S. title — 52.64 — but then hurt her hamstring and finished second to countrywoman Kori Carter at worlds in 53.50.
In 2018, McLaughlin ran 52.75 and turned professional after one season at Kentucky. At 18, McLaughlin said she had designs on the world record, and many believed it was coming.
“Maybe the biggest prodigy in the history of the sport,” NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon said on Sunday’s broadcast of McLaughlin, who made the Rio team at 16 and was eliminated in the Olympic semifinals as the youngest U.S. track and field competitor since 1972.
McLaughlin has 386,000 Instagram followers. Muhammad eclipsed 26,000 on Sunday night.
“I felt like the underdog in the race,” said Muhammad, who was beaten by McLaughlin in Oslo last month, their first head-to-head in two years. “I think people always kind of root for the underdog.”
USATF OUTDOORS: Full Results
In other events Sunday, Noah Lyles made his first world championships team by winning the 200m in 19.78 seconds. He topped U.S. 100m champion Christian Coleman, who was second in 20.02 to set up a 100m-200m double in Doha. More on Lyles-Coleman here.
Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz was upset by mulletted Craig Engels, but Centrowitz still finished second to make his seventh straight Olympic or world team.
Favorites Daniel Roberts, Grant Holloway and Devon Allen went one-two-three in the 110m hurdles to make up that world team. Holloway beat Roberts at the NCAA Championships in 12.98 seconds, fastest in the world this year, then dived across the finish line Sunday to secure his first world spot. Roberts won in 13.23.
Dezerea Bryant won the women’s 200m in 22.47 seconds, while U.S. 100m champion Teahna Daniels missed the world team in this event by .02, taking fourth.
Emma Coburn earned her eighth steeplechase title in nine years, even though she did not need to race here because she as a bye into Doha as defending world champion. Coburn is joined on the world team by Courtney Frerichs, who took second, just as she did at 2017 Worlds.
Coburn ranks third in the world this year behind Kenyans Beatrice Chepkoech (world-record holder) and Norah Jeruto.
Olympic 800m bronze medalist Clayton Murphy fought traffic in the last 200 meters to go from fourth to second behind Donavan Brazier and qualify for worlds. Brazier, 22, ranks fifth in the world this year after being eliminated in the semifinals in his world champs debut in 2017.
Ajeé Wilson earned her third straight U.S. 800m title, clocking 1:57.72. She’s a medal favorite at worlds given the absence of Olympic silver and bronze medalists Francine Niyonasaba and Margaret Wambui due to the IAAF’s new testosterone-capping rule. However, two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya is for the moment eligible while appealing.
Athing Mu, 17, finished fifth in a personal-best 2:01.17.
Lopez Lomong, who won the 10,000m on Thursday, doubled up in the 5000m, but he can’t compete at worlds in the latter because he doesn’t have a fast enough qualifying time. Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo, who lost a final sprint to the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer Lomong by .27, leads the team.
Shelby Houlihan completed her second straight 1500m-5000m double at nationals by kicking to win the longer distance. Houlihan, 11th in Rio in the 5000m, is not expected to race that event at worlds as she focuses on the 1500m, where she has become one of the world’s best in the last two years.
In the pole vault, Jenn Suhr, the 2012 Olympic champ ranked No. 1 in the world this year, and Sandi Morris, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist ranked No. 2 in the world this year, both qualified for worlds.
Olympic long jump champion Jeff Henderson appears to have made the world team despite placing fifth because national champion Ja’Mari Ward and fourth-place Jarvis Gotch don’t have a far enough qualifying jump for worlds.
Olympic shot put champion Michelle Carter was beaten by Chase Ealey, who ranks second in the world this year, but both are going to worlds.
Erica Bougard overcame Kendell Williams‘ 66-point lead in the heptathlon in the last event, the 800m, to repeat as national champion.
Bougard’s total, 6,663, ranks third in the world this year behind Olympic champion Nafi Thiam of Belgium and Brit Katarina Johnson-Thompson. The last American to earn a world heptathlon medal was Shelia Burrell in 2001 (bronze).
Jeron Robinson repeated as high jump champion, clearing 2.30 meters to move to joint seventh in the world this year.
The track and field season continues with a Diamond League meet in Birmingham, Great Britain, on Aug. 18.
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