Lashinda Demus

Sydney McLaughlin
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Sydney McLaughlin, 16, qualifies for Rio in 400m hurdles

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Fast fact: Teenager Sydney McLaughlin can juggle on a unicycle.

That’s nothing compared to this: The 16-year-old is headed to Rio as the youngest to make the U.S. Olympic track team since the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games.

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,” McLaughlin said. “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,” said the 23-year-old Spencer. “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.”

Two Olympic silver medalists out of U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

Lashinda Demus
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Lashinda Demus and Brigetta Barrett, two 2012 Olympic silver medalists, will miss the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in July and will not be able to return to the Games in August.

Demus, 33, took silver in the 400m hurdles in London, .07 behind Russian Natalya Antyukh.

Demus, also a four-time world championships medalist in the event, last competed June 28, 2015, finishing fourth at the U.S. Championships.

Since, she has been slowed by plantar fasciitis, vitamin deficiencies, a herniated disc in her lower back that required surgery, a broken right arm and meniscus and PCL tears in her knee, according to a blog post published Tuesday.

“I’ve struggled with injuries every single year since my silver medal, and you can see every bit of that in my performances,” Demus said in the post. “The athlete over these 4 years hasn’t come close to the athlete that I knew myself to be, and I think that’s what hurt my warrior soul the most.”

Demus said in the post she planned to come back next season.

The high jumper Barrett, on the other hand, has retired, according to her public relations and marketing agency.

She went from July 2014 to January 2016 without competing, according to Tilastopaja.org, reportedly undergoing hip surgery during that break.

She competed once this year but did not clear a height that would have automatically qualified her for the Olympic Trials. She was .01 off the needed height but still could have been invited to Trials.

Barrett took high jump silver at the 2012 London Games behind Russian Anna Chicherova, who recently failed a recent retest of a 2008 Beijing Olympic doping sample.

NBC Olympics track and field producer Seth Rubinroit contributed to this report.

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