Dalilah Muhammad, the Olympic champion and new world-record holder in the 400m hurdles, keeps an eye on her younger countrywoman, Sydney McLaughlin, who makes her global championships final debut on Friday.
“I’ve started kind of from the bottom, and I’ve really worked my way up,” Muhammad said before the world championships in Doha, “and I think Sydney’s kind of been at the top of her game from the very beginning of her career. I can definitely say that’s our stories. Our paths have definitely been different.”
They will intersect at the biggest stage yet on Friday (2:30 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel) in the most anticipated final of the last weekend of the 10-day worlds.
Muhammad and McLaughlin combine for seven of the world’s eight fastest times this year.
Muhammad, 29, broke a 15-year-old world record by winning the USATF Outdoor Championships in 52.20 seconds on July 28. But Muhammad hasn’t broken 53.5 in any of her other races this year, while McLaughlin has done it three times.
McLaughlin, 20 and the world junior record holder, also beat Muhammad in their two other head-to-heads this season on the Diamond League circuit.
Muhammad said shortly after lowering the world record that she didn’t think it would last long at 52.20 (which she ran two weeks after suffering a mild concussion in a training fall). What’s not clear is whether Muhammad will go even faster, or if McLaughlin is capable of it.
“The field is so deep,” Muhammad said, “and I don’t think I’m even at my best with 52.20.”
Muhammad’s world record, and her career, were testaments to perseverance. She ran unsponsored after being eliminated in the 2012 Olympic trials first round and finishing her USC career. Her parents helped support her — mom Nadirah, a child protection specialist in New York City and dad Askia, a Muslim Chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction and an adjunct professor of Islamic Studies at the New York Theological Seminary.
Then in 2013, Muhammad earned the U.S. title, a world silver medal and a Nike contract. After a quad injury and coaching change, she again rebounded, this time to become an Olympic champion in Rio.
“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.”
There’s never been doubt about McLaughlin. In 2016, she became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, eliminated in the semifinals at age 17.
She turned pro after her freshman season at Kentucky, signing with Beverly Hills-based WME talent agency, a sign that she wanted to become a star that crosses over beyond track. She’s been impressive enough on the oval.
In 2016, McLaughlin broke 55 seconds for the first time. In 2017, she cracked 54. Last year, she went down to 52.75. She’s still looking for a personal best this season. She may need one on Friday, after posting the fastest times in the first round and the semifinals.
“This season was really great, the way that it progressed,” McLaughlin said. “It wasn’t too up and down. It was really steady. I think it worked, perfect timing for the finals.”
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