At just 17 years old, Sydney McLaughlin is already one of the biggest track stars in the country. After competing in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2016 Rio Olympics, McLaughlin returned for her senior year at Union Catholic Regional High School (Scotch Plains, New Jersey) and dominated in the hurdles. She also outpaced all competition in the 200-meter and 400-meter sprints.
McLaughlin broke a number of records this season -- including her own world junior record in the 400-meter hurdles at the national championships last week with a time of 53.82 seconds. She also achieved viral status, as a video of her leading her high school team to victory during the anchor lap of the Swedish Relay at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals earlier this month made the rounds on social media. Her 49.85-second split -- yes, you read that correctly -- is believed to be the fastest in girls high school track history. She will begin her freshman year at Kentucky in the fall.
On Tuesday, she added another line to her incredible resume by being named the Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year for the second year in a row. She chatted with espnW by phone from San Francisco, moments after being surprised by Allyson Felix with the trophy. During the call, the track phenom reflected on her season, discussed her surprising summer job and shockingly revealed she won't be competing in the 400-meter hurdles next season with the Wildcats.
espnW: Congratulations on winning the Gatorade award for the second-straight year! What does this recognition mean to you?
Sydney McLaughlin: It's amazing. I was shocked to win last year, and I think I'm even more shocked about this one. To come back and get it again is just unbelievable. I tried to top myself from last year, but it was hard after everything that happened last season so it's amazing to be back.
espnW: Do you feel like you were able to top yourself from last year?
McLaughlin: Yeah, I don't know how I could have topped going to the Olympics but I tried to fit in as many things as I could this season.
espnW: You had such an impressive season, and you also graduated from high school. What would you say was your most memorable moment this spring?
McLaughlin: Of course graduation was great, as was prom, but just ending my season with my coach and my team was the biggest thing for me. I wanted to leave a lasting impression and legacy in New Jersey, and help the younger girls be leaders on the team. I wanted to get in as many last races as I could. It's bittersweet for it to all be over.
espnW: Your 400-meter relay performance at the New Balance Nationals went viral. What was going through your mind during that run?
McLaughlin: I don't even think I was thinking. Once I got the baton, I knew if I gradually made my way, I could start catching those ahead. But I wasn't really thinking until the last 100 meters when I was trying to catch the leader, and I honestly couldn't feel anything in my body. I just was focused on finishing. It was crazy afterwards. I was so exhausted.
espnW: Your team was in sixth place when you got the baton. At what point did you think or realize you had a chance to win?
McLaughlin: My coach had added up all the times, so we knew the times we all needed to run in order to win. I knew once I got the baton that if I did what I know how to do, which is run, we would have a chance to win. My coach knew I was going to get [the baton] probably 20 meters back, so once I made it around the first turn, I thought, "OK, I can do this." I gradually made my way to the front and finished as strong as I could.
espnW: You set a world junior record last week and finished sixth in a ridiculously fast 400-meter hurdle race. What is it like having such strong competitors at the national level? How does that push or motivate you?
McLaughlin: They say that was the fastest 400-meter hurdle race in history. It was really crazy. Of course it's nerve-wracking going up against the Olympic champion and the fastest woman in the world (Dalilah Muhammad), but at the same time, it's a learning experience. Even taking sixth, I'm so happy with it. These are the fastest women in the world, so to able to run with them at 17 is teaching me for my future. I don't always have to come away with the win to take something away from the race. That race taught me a lot about my 400-meter hurdle strategy, and about myself. Hopefully in the years to come, I'll be able to go faster.
espnW: What was your biggest lesson learned from the race?
McLaughlin: Being in Lane 8 was a first for me. You can't see anybody for the first 200 meters. That's difficult. Having people to push me the last 100 meters, I switched legs more often than I usually do because they're drawing me out faster. I think that's something I'm going to have to work on once I get to college.
espnW: Speaking of college, what are some of your goals for your freshman season at Kentucky?
McLaughlin: I don't know if I have goals for my freshman season. The coach [Edrick Floreal] and I have talked about it and I think I'm going to take a break from 400-meter hurdles my freshman season and go back to things I used to do, like long jump and short hurdles. I had to take a break from those because of injury. I think the first year really is just going to be a lot of fun for me. I haven't done short hurdles since my sophomore year of high school because of a groin injury, so I'm really hoping to get back to that. (Note: Floreal confirmed McLaughlin will not be running the 400-meter hurdles during her freshman season to help take some pressure off of her as she eases into college life and competing at the NCAA level. The plan is to return to her signature event for her sophomore season.)
espnW: What are your ultimate goals on the track?
McLaughlin: Well, hopefully, I'll make the 2020 Olympic team and redeem myself from last year. I'm hoping to make the finals and get on that podium. That's my focus right now.
espnW: Obviously your Olympic experience wasn't everything you had hoped for, but was your favorite moment from Rio?
McLaughlin: Probably walking in the closing ceremonies. All of Team USA was together and I got to meet the gymnastics girls and take pictures of them. It was cool to have everyone together in one place.
espnW: I'm sure you don't have much free time these days, but what do you like to do when you do have some downtime?
McLaughlin: I like to go shopping and buy shoes. My parents think I have an unhealthy obsession with shoes.
espnW: Nothing about that sounds unhealthy to me.
McLaughlin: I know! [Laughing] You can never have too many shoes. My season is done now, so I'm actually free for the summer. This is probably my first and last free summer for a while.
espnW: Are you going to take a vacation?
McLaughlin: I think this right now [San Francisco] is my vacation. But I'll probably go back home and go back to the job I've worked at before so I can buy more shoes.
espnW: Where do you work?
McLaughlin: I work at a dress store; it pays pretty well.
espnW: Are people surprised to see you when they come in to buy a dress?
McLaughlin: Yes! But people honestly seem surprised I go out in public. I'll sometimes take pictures with people when they come in. It's fun.