Olympian Sydney McLaughlin jumps at the chance to change pace at Kentucky
It's the kind of New Jersey summer day where every step feels like a chore. With the heat creeping toward 90 degrees and the morning sun beaming off the metal bleachers at Columbia Park in her hometown of Dunellen, Olympian Sydney McLaughlin lounges by the track where she ran her first race.
A football coach bounds over and hands her a shirt. "So you can represent for us when you get to college," he says.
A group of young kids walk by, eyes wide as they pass their idol dressed in a USA T-shirt and black leggings. Then a chorus: "Hi, Sydney!"
She's used to it by now -- the stares, selfie requests, the forced conversations with strangers, even an offer for her own reality TV show -- but still kind of embarrassed, especially when her dad escorts visitors to look at the sign at the park's entrance that bears her name.
McLaughlin went from curiosity to celebrity when she was 16 and qualified for the 2016 Olympics. In Rio she became the youngest American to compete for the track team since 1972. She was eliminated in the semifinals of the 400-meter hurdles and returned home to start her senior year at Union Catholic High School (Scotch Plains). She was given a hero's welcome, complete with the park dedication and signs across town welcoming her home. Her social media following exploded -- she now has more than 188,000 followers on Instagram and 70,000 on Twitter. She is one of track's most famous faces.
Today, the 18-year-old is looking forward to her freshman year at the University of Kentucky -- where she surpasses even John Calipari's blue-chip basketball recruits as the most-talked-about incoming freshman this year.
McLaughlin nods toward a group of campers running by on the track below.
"It was fun at that age. Everything is fun when you're younger," she says. "And then you grow up and it becomes stressful."
As her teammate approached with the baton, McLaughlin was exactly where she knew she'd be -- and exactly where she wanted to be. In sixth place, five runners off in the distance, the senior was, at last, the underdog.
Picking up speed and picking off competitors one at a time, McLaughlin couldn't feel anything in her body. She passed the final competitor and crossed the finish line in what's believed to be the fastest 400-meter split by a high school athlete and capped her senior season in the Swedish Relay at the New Balance Nationals. "I was dying the last 10 meters, I couldn't feel anything," she says. "I almost fell over."
Her June 16 run was watched hundreds of thousands of times across social media.
It's the kind of performance her dad, Willie, knew she had in her since "the very first time she ran" as a 7-year old when he used Hershey's bars as motivation. He should know. Willie competed in the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials in the 400 meters.
By the time she got to high school, McLaughlin had gobbled up plenty of chocolate, but she was still filled with apprehension before her first race and wasn't thinking much beyond it.
"I was so terrified because I knew high school girls were so fast," she says. "But then after that race, my coach came up to me and said, 'You just broke the state record,' and I was like, 'OK, but I can't feel my legs. Can we talk about it later?' Once [the record] went online and was on the front page of [a New Jersey] website, that's when I kind of realized, 'OK, wow, maybe this is something I can do in college.'"
McLaughlin finished high school without ever losing against another high school runner -- not once, in four years. She broke enough records and scored enough honors that you'd need a calculator to add them all up.
But she also had too many restless nights to count. The crippling nerves arrived with a jolt at 3 a.m. What if I lose? What if I let people down? How will that change things?
"When you're 7 years old and you're running to run, just seeing your parents smile is your reward," she says. "That's a big difference [from now]."
Kentucky coach Edrick Floreal and his detailed vision for her future sent McLaughlin a chance for a new beginning -- and maybe even a shot at a decent night's sleep on meet day. His commitment to helping her rediscover some of the joy she once felt on the track clinched her decision to head south.
Floreal, a former Olympian himself in the triple jump, offered her a break from the 400-meter hurdles, and she didn't hesitate in taking him up on it. She is planning to return to her signature event during her sophomore year but will in the meantime ease into college by participating in races she's less known for, like the 100-meter hurdles.
Pumping her arms out in Lane 8, McLaughlin could not seem to close the gap between herself and the leaders. In one of the fastest 400-meter hurdle races in history, McLaughlin crossed the finish line in a blazing 53.82 seconds, but it was good for just sixth place at the June 25 U.S. championships in Sacramento, California. The time set a world junior record, but it failed to qualify her for the world championships in London.
And that was just fine. It meant she could have an actual summer break. Like an actual teenager.
McLaughlin spent a lot of time with her friends and family -- big brother Tyler runs for Michigan, big sister Morgan competed at St. Peter's and little brother Ryan runs at Union Catholic. She went to the beach and worked on getting her driver's license (she's on her third learner's permit, after accidentally throwing away the first and putting the second one through the laundry). She's in no rush to get behind the wheel solo. "It's a dangerous thing!" she says. She's been trying to cut candy out of her diet and overcome her obsession with junk food.
She was going to return to work at a dress shop where she had worked previously but then decided to take advantage of the rare free time. She knows it might not happen again for a long time.
McLaughlin has spent more time on social media than she has previously, and she enjoys making funny videos and the attention they bring -- most of the attention, not all of it.
"Sometimes people will write, 'You're my wife! I want to marry you,'" she says. "I'm like, 'This is so creepy.' My dad will call me downstairs sometimes and he'll be like, 'Take this post down!' and I'm like, 'Why?' He doesn't like all the guys commenting.
"People really don't realize how young I am. They think I'm, like, 20, and it's like, 'Calm down, 20 isn't even marriage age. Calm down!'"
But she knows it comes with the territory.
She dreams of a successful career at Kentucky and then running professionally and returning to the Olympics. She constantly says things like "building my brand" and thinks about which companies she would eventually like to partner with. She is already trying to figure out how and when she'll be able to find time to get married and have children. She hopes to accomplish both of those milestones before her 30th birthday but is already concerned about taking time off to do so.
Looking to major in journalism, McLaughlin hopes to one day go into sports broadcasting when her career on the track is over.
With enticing endorsement offers being filtered through her parents, she had the option of getting a head start on her career after the Olympics but wasn't ready for the pressures of being a professional athlete.
"I thought about it but never seriously considered it," she says. "That's like running for a paycheck. I don't think, for me at least, at this point, that's what I want to be doing. I think I want to enjoy the sport as much as I can, especially the team aspect.
"Once you go pro, it's basically you running with yourself. You get a training partner, but that's it. For me I've always liked having other people behind me, to support me. We win or we lose together. So I think as long as I can hold that out, I will. Otherwise trying to pay my bills depends on how fast I run."
Mostly, these days, she's just relieved high school is over. She calls graduation one of the best days of her life, revealing no one had ever seen her smile so much inside a school. She tried to enjoy her final year as much as possible, attending traditional events such as prom, but she was more than ready to move on.
She's going with a pink-and-white theme for her dorm room and has taken great pride in getting everything to coordinate, even enduring a photo request in the checkout line at Walmart to get what she needed. Her roommate will be another member of the track team whom she competed against in high school, but McLaughlin doesn't know her personally.
"My dad says he gives me two weeks before I call and say 'I'm missing home,' but I don't think so," she says. "I know how to do laundry, I just don't do it at home. It's going to be interesting being on a budget, feeding myself and taking care of myself ..."
But first she was focused on squeezing in one more trip to Six Flags with her friends. She loves roller coasters, and the Kingda Ka -- the tallest roller coaster in the world (45 stories) and the fastest in North America (128 mph) beckoned. But McLaughlin hesitated. That might be just a little too fast, even for her.