Girls Sports Month: Teen Olympian Sydney McLaughlin on going fast and being a role model

March is Girls Sports Month. USA TODAY High School Sports will provide a series of pieces in which female athletes from high school to the pros and their mentors and coaches share their views on topics such as leadership, mentoring, perseverance and the important role athletics has played in their lives.

Aug 15, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sydney McLaughlin (USA) competes in the women's 400m hurdles heat during track and field competition in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-GRP-882 ORIG FILE ID: 20160815_sal_al2_995.JPG

Sydney McLaughlin made her Olympic debut in Rio (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

Sydney McLaughlin can vividly recall sitting in a chair in her living room as a toddler watching U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix gun it down the track to secure silver at the Olympics in Greece in 2004.

“I can remember telling my mom ‘I want to be just like Allyson,’” McLaughlin said.
“She’s my role model. She was just so fast. I wanted to run just like that.”

Now, 17 in her senior year at Union Catholic (New Brunswick, N.J.), McLaughlin isn’t just friends and teammates with Felix, but she also serves as the inspiration to young girls across the country.

“I had just crossed the finish line last year at my state meet and this little 3-year-old girl gave me a poster she’d made of me,” McLaughlin said. “Now every meet she comes and talks to me and just wants to be around me. I still can’t believe that I’m the one that some young girls look up to, but I don’t take it lightly. It’s an honor.”

McLaughlin, who committed to Kentucky in November, was Team USA’s youngest track and field Olympian since 1972 when she made the team for Rio. Her historic run came to an end in the semifinals of the 400-meter hurdles, finishing fifth (56.22 seconds) and failing to qualify for the medal race.

“It was an awesome experience and something that I’ll never forget,” said McLaughlin, who was named Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year and the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year in July. “I learned a lot that will make me a stronger runner and a stronger person. It’s definitely made me want to go even harder.”

Union Catholic’s Sydney McLaughlin easily won the Girls Non-Public A 400 MeterDash. NJSIAA Non-Public A and B Group Track Meet at Bennett Complex in Toms River NJ on February 18, 2017.

Union Catholic’s Sydney McLaughlin easily won the Girls Non-Public A 400 meters in New Jersey (Photo: Asbury Park Press).

The mindset renewal paid off Sunday at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions where McLaughlin notched her third consecutive win in the 400 meters, posting a time of 53.17, which bested her own record of 53.34 from last year. For an encore at the meet, McLaughlin anchored the 4×400 meter relay team and posted a mind-boggling 51.8 to help the Vikings finish in first place.

“I’m just trying to turn it up a notch every time I compete,” she said. “I definitely recognize the importance of building my brand with the younger girls looking up to me.

“Sports has allowed me to see the world, to relieve stress, to have fun and now it’s given me a platform. That’s something that you have to be responsible with, especially being a woman.”

McLaughlin said that, while she feels that women’s sports is closing the gap with men’s sports in terms or popularity, “there’s still a long way to go.”

“I think women’s sports gets dimmed down by men’s sports, but it’s important for women and especially young girls to know that we can do these things just as good as the men,” McLaughlin said. “Our accomplishments are just as good and that’s why it’s cool to have things like Girls Sports Month. It’s really important to highlight our achievements, too.”

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