KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — From the outside looking in, two-time American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year Sydney McLaughlin’s freshman season at Kentucky has been a blur.
A blur of increasingly fast times, freshman records and world junior records. McLaughlin, who made the U.S. Olympic team for Rio at 16 and is still only 18, has set/reset five world junior records this season. And she is just getting started.
“She’s pretty gifted. She can do stuff that other people simply cannot do,” Kentucky coach Edrick Floreal told USA TODAY Sports in January.
Her season hasn’t been all wins — and this seems surprising, such are the expectations — but it has been special. Some highlights:
Dec. 8, Hoosier Open: Collegiate debut … won the 300 meters in 36.12 seconds, setting a world junior record.
March 9-10, NCAA indoor championships: Broke her world junior record in the 400 running 50.36 to finish second behind USC’s Kendall Ellis, who set a collegiate record 50.34 (Ellis ran in a separate section). Also finished fourth in the 200, 22.80, and ran on the fifth-place 4×400 relay.
March 29-31, Florida Relays: Opened her outdoor season clocking 22.39 in the 200 (No. 4 on the world juniors list). Ran 50.07 in the 400 (No. 6 on the all-time U-20 list).
April 12-14, Tennessee Relays: Ran 11.07w in the 100, finishing second but the top collegian.
April 27-28, National Relay Championships: The long-awaited NCAA debut in the 400 hurdles, her signature event. Ran 53.60, a world junior record, No. 4 on the all-time collegiate list and the No. 1 time in the world.
That brings us to Knoxville and this week’s SEC championships. McLaughlin will be the only athlete in the competition who has been on the cover of Track and Field News, twice, including the current edition (alas, digital only these days.)
Kentucky is a rising force in NCAA women’s track and field, starting with the hurdles — besides McLaughlin, junior Jasmine Camacho-Quinn will be among the favorites in the 100 hurdles here and at the NCAA championships.
Signing McLaughlin was a major coup, and perhaps a surprise nationally, but Floreal has built a consistent winner, a destination program. Just look at the powerhouse lineup of volunteer assistant coaches: 100 hurdles world recordholder Keni Harrison, a Kentucky alum; reigning 400 hurdles world champ Kori Carter (who owns the collegiate record McLaughlin is closing in on, 53.21); and 110 hurdles Olympic and world champion Omar McLeod.
In determining what events McLaughlin would run at the SEC meet, Floreal had a range of options. The Cats — No. 5 in the most recent USTFCCCA rankings — will need every point if they hope to challenge for the SEC title, and McLaughlin has the top NCAA times in the 400 and 400 hurdles and the top SEC time in the 200 (second nationally to Gabrielle Thomas of Harvard).
Ultimately, they decided on a reasonable schedule: 400 hurdles — could another record be in store? — and most likely both relays.
McLaughlin won’t be running the 800 — which came up recently in a comedic Twitter exchange (the glare of the spotlight has not taken away McLaughlin’s sense of humor). Of course, you can’t blame track fans for imagining just what she could do, with that speed and the growing strength, in a two-lap race.
After the SECs come the East prelims (May 24-26 in Tampa) and the NCAA championships (June 6-9 in Eugene, Ore.). Inevitably, the chatter will get louder about McLaughlin moving on to the pro ranks. There will be plenty of sponsorship dollars available when she does make that choice.
Floreal told USA TODAY Sports he has been working with McLaughlin on mechanical adjustments in her running technique, including her height over the hurdles. But being the whole package requires a lot more than mechanics.
“I think people underestimate the fact that she’s 18 years old,” Floreal said. “There are a lot of things that an 18-year-old deals with that are not pro-like stuff. So we sort of have to deal with that and get her to accept and understand that. … She has to understand her role. She has to understand what a pro is like, how does a pro act. What sort of behavior a pro takes at practice. And having sort of an instant group of pros to teach her that also is making it a little bit easier.
“But as an athlete, as a training partner, she is all that and a bag of chips.”