ALL-USA track star Sydney McLaughlin bound for Rio in 400 hurdles

ALL-USA track star Sydney McLaughlin bound for Rio in 400 hurdles

Olympics

ALL-USA track star Sydney McLaughlin bound for Rio in 400 hurdles

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Dalilah Muhammad, right, the 400-meter hurdles winner, hugs Sydney McLaughlin. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

Dalilah Muhammad, right, the 400-meter hurdles winner, hugs Sydney McLaughlin.
(Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)

Dalilah Muhammad dominated the 400-meter hurdles on Sunday in the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. But 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, who finished third, dominated the headlines.

McLaughlin, who still has another year at Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, N.J., finished in 54.15, which sets a world junior record, improving on the 54.46 she ran at the New Balance Nationals in June to break the 32-year-old record set by Leslie Maxie of Mills (Millbrae, Calif.) in 1984.

She was named to the American Family Insurance ALL-USA track team in each of her first two years at Union Catholic.

McLaughlin — who turns 17 on Aug. 7 — becomes the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since, well, since a week ago, when 18-year-old Vashti Cunninghamearned her spot in the high jump. The last 16-year-old to make the team was 100 hurdler Rhonda Brady in 1976.

“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 she isn’t exactly used to trailing like this — 1.27 behind Muhammad — she still 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 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.”

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