The Track Phenom Who Chose College Over Riches

Move over Allyson Felix and Usain Bolt. Meet Sydney McLaughlin. She skipped going pro (and a big payday) for now—but it's not slowing her down from becoming the new face of track and field.
photo of Liam Boylan-PettLiam Boylan-Pett@liam_bpContributor IPhotographs by Luke SharrettOctober 24, 2017

It's a Snapchat-worthy moment: Sydney McLaughlin is squeezed in between members of the University of Kentucky track team on a small set of bleachers, throwing deuces and mean-mugging into her phone with her squad. They're in Lexington, Kentucky, to support the UK women's cross-country team at a meet while snapping the entire experience. "Ohhh," the team members react, throwing their hands in the air, bobbing up and down to the beat as Marian Hill's "Down" starts to blare from speakers nearby. Sydney starts milly rocking and flips her long brown hair off her shoulders. She's no longer in her phone screen. The 18-year-old is in the moment.

If you've followed Sydney for the last two years, you know she's good at creating moments—history-making moments. In 2016, at the age of 16, she became the youngest track and field athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team since 1980 (she turned 17 during the Rio Games). She lit up social media when she ran a national high school record 49.85-second 400-meter relay split in June. And while many teen track and field runners on the rise with credentials less impressive than Sydney's have gone pro in recent years, the New Jersey native decided to pass up what could have been seven figures annually as a pro.

That's why she's here, in Lexington, with her UK team—Snapchatting and dancing on a sunny Saturday morning in September, one week before track practice begins. While UK's men's basketball team has brought in recruits-turned-NBA-All-Stars like John Wall and Karl-Anthony Towns under the tutelage of coach John Calipari, the highest-profile recruit to land on campus this year isn't hooping. She's running.

At 16, Sydney became the youngest track and field athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team since 1980.
At 16, Sydney became the youngest track and field athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team since 1980.(Luke Sharrett for B/R Mag)

Sydney's popularity heading into the school year garnered the attention of classmates who came to campus with questions for the newcomer. "What was it like to run in Rio?" and "How high are those hurdles you're jumping?" The Lexington locals are familiar with her resume too. "Oh, I know about the track phenom," one Uber driver in the basketball-crazed town said. "She's already an Olympian, right?"

The spotlight is still surreal for Sydney, even after actor Michael B. Jordan, of Creed and Fruitvale Station fame, gave her props this summer. When SportsCenter shared video of Sydney's record-breaking relay split on Instagram, Jordan reacted with four fire emojis. Sydney was hyped, even if she didn't know exactly who he was. "Michael B. Johnson commented," she tells B/R Mag, not quite remembering his name. "He just looked, like, really famous and then I saw his profile and I was like," she leans back and shakes her head, "'What is happening?'"

What's happening is this: As Allyson Felix enters the twilight of her career and Usain Bolt puts an end to his, Sydney is steadily on the come up, poised to make more fire emoji-worthy moments at UK and beyond. "Right now, I'm just getting ready for the 2020 Olympics," she says. Sydney's doing that by tackling a new event—the 100-meter hurdles—as she sprints her way to becoming the new face of track and field.

Sydney stutter-stepped into a hurdle, then soared over another by a foot or two before landing off balance. "There was no form whatsoever," Mike McCabe, who coached Sydney in high school, remembers. But she still won. By a lot.

It was April 2014, and it was the first time Sydney ran the 400-meter hurdles for Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Her time, 1:01.4, was a school record and fast enough to make plenty of D-I rosters. Three months and many practices later, she avoided stutter-steps and lowered her leaps to clock in at 55.63. With that performance she broke the national high school freshman record. It was the ninth-fastest time in the U.S. that year. Sydney was only 14 years old.

But that kind of performance wasn't anything new. She won her first race—a 100-meter event at a New Jersey youth track meet when she was six, according to her dad, Willie, a former sprinter (Sydney's mother, Mary, was also a runner). There was more daylight between her and second place than Bolt had between him and the field in Beijing. "It was pretty much the same that you saw in high school," Willie says of her early track career. "That's what it's always been like. She's always been winning by a lot."

“That’s what it’s always been like," Sydney's father Willie says. "She’s always been winning by a lot.”
“That’s what it’s always been like," Sydney's father Willie says. "She’s always been winning by a lot.”(Luke Sharrett for B/R Mag)

Sydney, however, didn't win this year. At the U.S. championships in Sacramento in June, the two-time Gatorade National Girls Athlete of the Year ran the fastest 400-meter hurdle race of her career (53.82 seconds), but came across the finish line in sixth place. Only the top three qualified for the World Championships in London. Sydney hasn't raced since.

She's at Kentucky to make sure that she doesn't fall short again.

"It's going to get so much better for her in college," McCabe says. He believes a better track (Union Catholic's oddly shaped track has three turns) and Kentucky weather will benefit Sydney, as well as working with some of the best coaching and training partners in the world. For once, Sydney isn't going to be the one leading the way. At Union Catholic, she took an already successful team and helped turn it into a national power.

"When you see someone who can split 51 in the 400, you start thinking you can run 54, at least," McCabe says of Sydney's influence on teammates. McCabe believes that working with training partners like Keni Harrison, who set the 100-meter hurdles world record in 2016, and Kori Carter, who won the 400-meter hurdles at the World Championships in London in 2017, will have the same effect on Sydney. When you're surrounded by the best, you become the best.

At UK, Sydney is coached by Edrick Floreal, who, since taking over at Kentucky as the director of track and field in 2012, has led five UK women and one relay team to a combined eight national championships and the UK team to a second-place team finish at the 2015 outdoor NCAA championships. He also coaches a stable of pros, including Harrison and Carter.

Sydney chose to run at the University of Kentucky over going pro.
Sydney chose to run at the University of Kentucky over going pro.(Luke Sharrett for B/R Mag)

With Sydney, he's tasked with taking one of the best high school track athletes in history and making her one of the greatest track and field stars. He knows it won't happen instantly. Sydney's hurdling ability, according to Floreal's critique, isn't world class. "She's way too high over the hurdles," he says (the less time a hurdler spends in the air, the better). "Her trail leg was too high. Her hips were too high. She would run really fast and jump."

Floreal is putting Sydney in the 100-meter hurdles this year instead of her specialty, the 400 hurdles. She won't be away from the 400 hurdles forever. If she can master the steps and jumps in the 12 to 13 seconds it takes to run the 100, she will be able to improve in the longer sprint, too. Floreal is already running drills with Sydney, and he's seeing improvement. "She's sucking up the information like she's thirsty," he says. "I'm a nerdy teacher, and she has a desire to learn." Soon, Floreal says, Sydney's hurdling mechanics can be perfected.

Even with her imperfect hurdling, Sydney could have skipped the UK track team and gone pro last summer. Nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix did when she graduated high school in 2003. Felix and Sydney were teammates in Rio, and Sydney wouldn't mind following in her footsteps in solidifying herself as one of the best on the track. "Allyson is almost like a big sister, but almost like a mom," Sydney says. "She's just done everything right and I think presents herself very well, and that's kind of what I aspire to do as well."

Going pro isn't for everyone, though.

"You have to have everything in place," says Felix, who attended the University of Southern California, but did not compete for the Trojans, her first few years as a pro. "[Sydney's] decision is a personal choice. You have to go with what's best for you and what fits your personality. I think that it can look glamorous and look great, but the reality of it is that it's really, really difficult. Track and field—it's hard to be on the road and compete on the circuit."

“When you see someone who can split 51 in the 400, you start thinking you can run 54, at least,” Sydney's high school coach Mike McCabe tells B/R Mag.
“When you see someone who can split 51 in the 400, you start thinking you can run 54, at least,” Sydney's high school coach Mike McCabe tells B/R Mag.(Luke Sharrett for B/R Mag)

College life isn't easy either, but it's more Sydney's pace. She's on her own 680 miles from home, doing her own laundry now and learning how to cook, she says. So far Sydney has only made scrambled eggs. She says she's not homesick yet, but does miss her cockapoo, Gamble. She stays in touch with her brother Taylor, who runs the 400-meter hurdles for the University of Michigan. She misses New Jersey too, but its music is always with her. DJ LILMAN, DJ Telly Tellz and DJ Taj are still on her pre-race playlist. "I definitely don't forget about my Jersey club music while I'm out here," she says. "I keep that with me."

She is changing, though. In New Jersey, Sydney had a small circle of friends and family she trusted. She's being forced to make new friends in Lexington. "I interact with people more than I would back home," she says. "I've been put in a situation where I need to make myself comfortable and I've definitely opened up as who I am as a person."

Sydney has made friends with members of the UK track team, but she's spending most of her time with the sprint and hurdle crew at practice, where they bond over hill sprints and early-morning interval sessions. She knows not to be late. If someone on the UK track team shows up even a minute behind schedule, everyone on the team has to get on the ground and roll the length of the football field—everyone except the person who was tardy.

Sydney won't start working on her hurdle form specifically until December or maybe even January, when the indoor track season begins. Until then, it's all conditioning. She laughs nervously talking about the difficult workouts on the horizon. "I'm scared," she says. "Oh my goodness, I'm terrified."

After the races at the UK cross-country meet, Sydney is getting ready to leave when a group of high school boys approach her. They ask her for a picture. She knows the drill—she's used to it from her high school days, when fans lined up for selfies with her—and obliges. But with one caveat: She brings in some of her new teammates. One more person comes up and asks for a picture with her. Sydney gathers her teammates again.

She's relishing her decision to ditch the pro track life to focus on having fun at UK, with her teammates and without the pressures that come with being a teenage professional runner. It's what she wished for. "I wanted the experience of being a college kid," Sydney says. "To walk on a campus, live on my own, get experiences to mature as a person and in the sport."

“Right now, I’m just getting ready for the 2020 Olympics,” Sydney says.
“Right now, I’m just getting ready for the 2020 Olympics,” Sydney says.(Luke Sharrett for B/R Mag)

But Tokyo is the long-term goal.

"Coach Flo and I definitely have a plan when it comes to [the Olympics], and we know what our goals are each year. It's going to be a progression, of course. Regardless of freshman year, sophomore year, NCAAs, or going pro," Sydney says. "That's always going to be in the back of our minds."

As Sydney preps for another run at making the Olympic team, Floreal hopes she becomes more introspective during these formative years. "I want her to embrace who she is," he says, "and come to terms with the fact that she's unique, different and special."

And quite possibly track and field's next big star.

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