RIO DE JANEIRO – The clock says Sydney McLaughlin is among the world’s elite in the 400-meter hurdles. The calendar says she is 17.
This sound like a high school kid? She missed opening ceremony at the Rio Olympic Games to spend her Aug. 7 birthday at home in Dunellen, N.J., with friends.
“We went mini-golfing. And then I flew out the day after,” she said.
McLaughlin’s improbable Olympic appearance ended Tuesday night in the semifinals. The top two from each of three semis, plus the next two best times, qualified for Thursday night’s final.
She was fifth in the first semi in 56.22, far off the world junior record of 54.15 she set July 10 in making the U.S. team at Eugene, Ore. That ranked her No. 7 in the world.
The American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Track Athlete of the Year, McLaughlin is the youngest to represent Team USA in Olympic track and field since 1972 and will return home to start her senior year at Union Catholic.
“I think my bounce has just been missing all week, and now this,” McLaughlin said. “I wasn’t really myself these past few days and I think my races weren’t me and it kind of showed. But you know, I’m happy I made it this far and I can go home saying I’m an Olympian.”
She unexpectedly qualified for semifinals despite a poor first-round race. She was “very shocked” to make it through on time.
“It was a good kind of redemption thing, but coming back, I think it wasn’t my time,” she said. “It kind of just showed that this is not the time for me. Just being here is amazing enough for me.”
She said she started well but soon lost her stride pattern, switching lead legs. She has some international experience – she was world youth champion a year ago in Cali, Colombia – but that was against other teenagers and not on an Olympic stage.
“It’s gonna help me, you know? I didn’t run the races I wanted to, but now I know what it’s like to be here and go through this kind of thing,” McLaughlin said. “You know, have the pressures of sleeping in a dorm room and seeing your competition in the food halls. You know, it’s just practice, getting ready for the future.”
She sounded as if she is eager for a return to normalcy at Union Catholic Regional High School. She said she will run a high school season, indoors and outdoors, take the SATs, pick a college. She has a couple of books to read before classes resume Sept. 9.
She didn’t get any studying done. That is, not for school. She studied everything in and around the Olympic Village.
“I’m eating next to world champions and Olympians,” she said. “I’m sleeping in the same rooms with them, and it’s just amazing to be here at this age and have people to look up to.”
At her age, this could be the first of as many as three or four Olympics.