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In the world of hurdles before Sidney McLaughlin, it took years to cut fractions of seconds off records, and winning races didn’t always mean rewriting history.
This once-in-a-lifetime player blurs that mentality as quickly as she destroys the records she sets over and over again.
For the fourth time in 13 months, 22-year-old McLaughlin broke the world record. On Friday, she ran the 400m hurdles at the World Championships in 50.68 seconds. It smashed its old mark by 0.73 seconds, an absurd number for a race of such distance and amount of time, in the world before McLaughlin, that it took 33 years to trim.
She beat the Dutch second-placed Vimke Paul, by 1.59 seconds. McLaughlin’s main competitor, Dalilah Muhammad, finished third with a time of 53.13 seconds, a time he would have easily won the world title just seven years ago.
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However, as McLaughlin summed up her takeaway from the evening – an evening she presented at a race that turned it into one of the track’s must-see events – she wasn’t ready to announce that she ran in the perfect race.
“I didn’t get a chance to watch it, so I have to do it and come back and talk to my coach,” McLaughlin said. “But I think there are always things to improve. I think we’re pushing the boundaries of the sport, especially in our event.”
After McLaughlin received her gold medal and listened to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe handed her a check for $100,000 – a prize for breaking the worlds record. This was the fourth consecutive major race in which I topped the mark.
On a 72-degree night at Hayward Stadium, McLaughlin left Paul and Muhammad 150 meters behind. By the time the Americans hit the final curve, it was clear that this was going to be a hard race against the clock.
“It was crazy,” Paul said. “She’s been up front so far, I almost doubted if I’d had a really good race. Then I saw the time and thought, ‘Wow, that explains a lot.'”
When McLaughlin finished, she leaned on the floor, looked at the scoreboard and said, “That’s cool, that’s cool.” She grabbed her knees and smiled. A minute later, the mascot, Legend the Bigfoot, pounded her, holding a sign that read, “World records are my favorite food.”
The 400-hurdles record of 52.34, held by Russia’s Yulia Beshunkina, had sat on the books for 16 years when Muhammad, not McLaughlin, cut it to 52.20 at the US Championships in Iowa in 2019.
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At the time, Muhammed’s coach, Boogie Johnson, said there had long been an idea that the Russian record looked “a bit weak” and ready for acquisition. Muhammad broke it again, at 52.16, at the World Championships in 2019.
This was the race that McLaughlin lost by 0.07, the race that got her to make changes.
Since reaching out to coach Bobby Kersey, she has broken records in last year’s Olympic Trials (51.90), Olympian (51.46) and Nationals last month. (51.41). Now, that’s — a 1.4% improvement over a four-week-old record and first flight in the 1950s.
“I definitely thought it was possible,” Mohammed said. “And after that race, I think 49 is possible.”
McLaughlin set three of her four records on this particular track at Hayward Stadium. She turned what used to be the best head-to-head on the right track – she vs. Muhammad – On the one-woman show at the moment.
The big question: How?
Some of the answers lie in a combination of improved track surfaces, new technology in the spikes that held back the great Edwin Moses compared to “having a trampoline on your shoes,” and a new training system that Kersey, who worked with nearly all of America’s greats, used in the run-up to last year’s Olympics.
But mostly, pure talent.
“It’s just putting practically everything you’ve done in the race to the point where you let your body do what it’s doing,” McLaughlin said.
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Another way to look at McLaughlin’s dominance: passing the track while jumping 10 hurdles took just 1.57 seconds longer than the Bahamas’ Shauna Miller Uibo who needed to win the 400 Flat, which took place half an hour before the main event.
In the men’s race, American Michael Norman won the world title with a time of 44.29 seconds, beating 2012 Olympic champion Kierani James in the final 80 metres.
Norman received a massive applause from the nearly full stands, and believes the emotional center of the evening came a few minutes earlier. Javelin thrower Kara Winger, 36, who came out with ACL surgery, threw 64.05 meters (210 ft, 1 in) on her sixth and final attempt to finish second behind Australian Kelsey Lee Barber.
It was the first medal in any major competition for the eight-time National Champion, who outfitted a cable and reel system in her backyard to keep pace with her workouts during the pandemic.
Then came McLaughlin. She and Muhammad raised the US medal total to 26 in eight days. The Americans need five more players to break the record in their tournaments. The weekend is packed with relays, which will include the surprise return of Alison Felix in the 4×400.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see McLaughlin (and Muhammed) on the US 4×400 relay team, just as they were last summer in Tokyo where they helped the US win gold.
Speaking of that 400-apartment apartment, McLaughlin sparked the idea that she might have a future there, too.
“My coach thinks there is a lot that needs to be done,” she said. “At some point, we can do maybe 4, or maybe 100 hurdles. It says to really enjoy the 400 hurdles while I do it, and then, if you want to expand, go from there. The sky is definitely the limit.”