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Teenager Sydney McLaughlin battles through nerves to reach Rio

Sydney McLaughlin, a 16-year-old high school student, will be the youngest U.S. Olympian to compete in track and field since 1972 after finishing third overall in Sunday's 400-meter hurdles final. Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

EUGENE, Ore. -- Everything was on course. Her prerace meals, the hour and a half scheduled to get ready by herself in her hotel room, the drive and walk to the track.

But when 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin stepped on the track for warm-ups on the day of her first-round 400-meter hurdles race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Hayward Field, she wanted none of it.

She walked up to her coaches. "I don't want to do this," she told them. "I don't belong here."

Her coaches, Mike McCabe and Luiz Cartagena, were prepared for McLaughlin's nerves -- they had always come before every race. But not like this. It was always small jitters that were easily fixed with a bit of positive talk. But what McLaughlin would later describe as a "mental breakdown" quickly became 45 minutes of McLaughlin saying she wanted to leave Hayward, and McCabe and Cartagena telling her she was running, she was getting on that line.

"It was kind of like her way of telling herself that she could just come here in four years," Cartagena said. "She'd be 20. Then she'd be ready."

She wasn't necessarily wrong. The expectations for any teenager at the trials were limited. For a high school junior to even qualify is practically a medal on its own.

McLaughlin could have tripped on the first hurdle and finished last in the first round. She could've made it to the second round and barely finished. She could have done basically anything and have it be considered a "win" in the 16-year-old's expectations book ... Anything except quitting before she had even started.

"In my mind," McLaughlin said, "I didn't want to run."

But her coaches convinced her to get on the line and run the race like she had every other race. Deal with whatever consequences happen. Do anything but quit. So she got in her blocks during the second heat and raced a 55.46, beating four collegians and a professional.

After the race, a reporter asked if that was the most nervous she had ever been before a race.

"Yes," she said. "Yeah, just the people. There's so many people here. I've never been in front of a crowd this big. It definitely has an effect."

The next day, in the semifinals, she won her heat by beating four collegians and three professionals. And in Sunday's final, she raced a 54.15, outrunning three pros and two collegians, taking down the world junior record and earning herself the third spot on the Olympic roster alongside Nike athletes Dalilah Muhammad (26 years old) and Ashley Spencer (23).

She will be the youngest American track and field Olympian in 44 years.

McLaughlin remembers another famous teen collegian, Allyson Felix, who earned a silver medal in the 200-meter dash at the 2004 Olympics. Now, the two will be teammates in Rio, but McLaughlin has taken an important lesson from Felix's career, one that she's able to apply to herself after her third-place finish at the trials.

"She wasn't afraid to lose," McLaughlin said. "I think sometimes I get so caught up in the fact that I haven't lost a hurdle race, and then I come here and there are girls who are faster than me. I think just realizing that sometimes you have to lose in order to get better, it's a big thing for me."

McLaughlin's first competitive track race was 10 years ago, when she was 6 years old. Her father, Willie, had told her that if she won she'd get a chocolate bar with almonds in it.

It worked. She won. And then she kept winning, eventually getting into the hurdles, where she excelled.

At last year's IAAF World Youth Championships, McLaughlin swept the field, running a 55.94. This year, with a focus on getting to the Olympic trials, her coaches started her season two months later so she could physically and mentally be ready to peak in early July at Hayward.

And when she stood on the podium, she had only one word for her emotions: Unreal.

So, how exactly does she plan to celebrate her third-place finish and trip to Rio?

"A cheeseburger," McLaughlin said. "Maybe some sweet potato fries. Cheesecake. Something like that."

Maybe she has grown out of the chocolate bar and almonds, but she's only beginning to grow into her own when it comes to the track.