COLUMBUS, N.J. — Sydney McLaughlin made a startling admission Saturday, during the final NJSIAA Meet of Champions in her unparalleled track and field career.
“I had a lot of nerves today,” the Olympian said. “Both races were nerve-wracking. But I think I did OK.”
She did more than OK, of course. The Union Catholic senior and Dunellen resident won the 400-meter hurdles and 400-meter dash, matching a state record with 11 individual career gold medals at the Meet of Champions.
Her times were sensational by anyone’s standards except her own: A comfortable 56.97 in the 400 hurdles followed by a 51.91 in the open 400. The plan all along was to cruise in the hurdles — she lowered her own national record to 54.03 at last week’s Non-Public A meet — and go after a sub-51 in the 400.
She wound up winning both races by more than three seconds.
“I think I settled on the backstretch of the 400,” she said. “I’m still happy with it. It’s a great workout for nationals.”
The high school nationals take place next weekend in North Carolina, but this was her final competition on New Jersey soil, perhaps forever — she heads to the University of Kentucky in the fall. So there was some major nostalgia in the air.
“It’s a little sad, I think,” McLaughlin said. “Hopefully this was enough for Jersey to remember me by.”
The crowd of about 3,000 people at Northern Burlington High School quieted to a whisper both times she took to the starting line. Everyone at the facility knew who she was, and a lot of folks stopped her for selfies and chit-chat.
“It’s great, but it can also be a hassle when you’re trying to warm up and people are coming over,” she said. “But it’s great to be recognized and have so many supporters.”
That’s what happens when you make the Olympic team after your junior year of high school — a feat achieved maybe once in a generation in this sport. McLaughlin not only made team USA in the 400 hurdles; she advanced to the semifinals in Rio.
That’s why it’s fascinating to hear about her butterflies before this meet. Competing in that Union Catholic uniform still matters deeply to her.
“Always,” she said. “Everywhere I race, I feel butterflies. That never goes away.”
So McLaughlin exits New Jersey competition with a national record in the 400 hurdles and state records in the 400 (51.87) and 200 (22.96). Plus 11 Meet of Champions golds including four straight in the 400 hurdles. She tied Columbia legend Olivia Baker for most MOC golds, combined indoors and outdoors.
“I’m happy with the consistency I’ve had throughout this season and throughout my four years,” she said. “I’m happy with the progress that I’ve seen.”
No one’s ever seen anything quite like it.