The first thing you should know about Sydney McLaughlin is that she’s 14 years old. A shade over 5 feet, 8 inches, the soon-to-be sophomore from Union Catholic, N.J., may be tall for her age, but she’s still 14.
Now think about this for a minute. During the weekend of July 5-6, this young hurdler was just .21 of a second from beating the NCAA champion; less than a few meters from winning the 400-meter hurdles at the USATF Junior National Championships on track & field’s most revered oval, the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field.
Here’s another eye-opener. Her time, a personal best of 55.63, could be competitive or win most state meets nationwide in the open 400m!
“I knew she would be good,” Union Catholic head coach Mike McCabe said, “but I didn’t know she would be that good.”
McLaughlin impressive showing at the Junior Nationals, where she finished behind Texas A & M freshman Shamier Little, a former HS star from Lindblom Math & Science Academy, Il, ranks high on the list as one of the best performances ever at the elite competition. It not only broke her own national freshmen record by more than a second, but is No. 2 all time in U.S. history for high-schoolers.
The current mark of 55.20 by Leslie Maxie of Mills High, Calif., in 1984 will no doubt fall as early as next year by the gifted runner, who was the 400m hurdle champion at last month’s New Balance Nationals, a meet she also finished second in the 100m hurdles.
“Actually, I didn’t think I would be running this fast until my sophomore or junior years,” McLaughlin said. “The good competition that I have been up against has helped me get faster.”
Since winning her first race as a high school runner on Dec. 21, a new state indoor mark of 38.55 at the Bishop Loughlin Games in N.Y., McLaughlin has been nothing short of phenomenal as both a hurdler and sprinter for Union Catholic. The victories have been plentiful, and so have the records.
McLaughlin comes from a strong gene pool. The gifted teenager’s dad, Willie, a three-time All American at Manhattan College, made it to the semifinals of the 400m at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials and had a best of 45.3. Her mom, Mary, was a 2:12 half-miler in high school.
The young McLaughlin’s two oldest siblings, Morgan and Taylor, also followed in the footsteps of their parents. Morgan, who just finished her sophomore year at St. Peter’s University, was a sub 60-second 400m runner at Union Catholic and owns a personal best of 1:02.56 for the 400m hurdles. Taylor, a soon-to-be HS senior, already has been part of six national title-winning relay squads on both the indoor and outdoor surfaces with blazing splits of 46.02 for the 400m and under 21 seconds for the 200m. Like his younger sister, he also is quite fast when it comes to the hurdles. Last year, he was third in the 400m IH at the U.S. Juniors with a PB of 51.69, less than a second from earning a trip to compete individiually in Ukraine for the IAAF World Youth Championships, but ran on the swedish relay at the World Youths.
“All of our kids are fairly talented,” Willie said. “But (Sydney’s) a little special. We saw it coming. It was just a matter of time.”
The young McLaughlin showed potential early in her life. At age 7, her first time competing in the Junior Olympic Nationals, she finished third in the 200m and second in the 100m. From there, the proper nurturing by her parents helped her progress steadily.
“They just let me go out and run for fun and not focus on placement or titles,” she said. “That got me to enjoy it more.”
Now it’s somewhat different.
“When I was young it seemed like fun and something to do,” she said. “As I got older, it became more about competition, placement and titles. It’s still fun, but it’s more about competition, placement and titles.”
McLaughlin’s opening act to high-school competition couldn’t have worked out any better with her victory at the Bishop Loughlin Games, a meet that attracts some of the best runners from the northeast region to the New Balance Armory.
McLaughlin started off by winning her preliminary heat with a fast 39.16 clocking.
“I was full of nerves because I didn’t know what to expect. I know the coach seeded me at a lower time, but I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “The first heat I was terrified. The second time it was fun.”
“She just missed the national record,” McCabe said. “It was exciting, a great way to start off her career.”
The Union Catholic coach admitted the instant stardom did a number on his star hurdler’s nerves at the beginning.
“She ran well, but not the level that we knew she could do,” he said.
McLaughlin’s finished off her indoor season by taking third in the 400m at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions with a then best of 56.15. She never made it to the finals of the 55m hurdles, running her preliminary heat in 9.04, nearly a second slower than her best of 8.16 at the start of the season.
“I ran that right after the 400 meters against Olivia Baker,” said McLaughlin, making reference to the New Balance Indoor titlists from Columbia, a runner-up at the recent Junior Nationals. “After the 400, I threw up and then had to run the trials.”
The young phenom had a day to remember at the Meet of Champions on June 4 where she shattered the meet record in the 400m hurdles with a time of 56.91. She also finished second in the 100m hurdles with a PB of 13.47, the third fastest time in N.J. history and a new national mark for 14 year olds. To cap it all off, she sizzled her anchor leg on Union Catholic’s 4x400m relay with a 52.2 split.
At the NBNO meet, McLaughlin broke another frosh mark with a 56.89 clocking for the 400m hurdles.
“That race I was looking to get the national record not the freshmen record,” she said. “I ran a good race but I think it could have been better.”
That better race came in Oregon where she actually held the lead over Little going into the last turn.
“At 250 meters it was getting closer so I decided to go for it and died at the end,” she said.
McLaughlin will not be among the athletes at the World Juniors the week of July 22-27 at Hayward Field. Despite placing among the top two and running the qualifying standard, two key requirements to secure a slot, she was under the minimum age limit of 15, which she’ll turn on Aug. 7.
“I know there is a lot of fuss about it, but we already knew before she entered that she wouldn’t be able to go,” said her mom. “We just wanted her to go for the experience.”
“This year I don’t feel mentally prepared to go there anyway,” McLaughlin admitted. “It was a good experience because I know next year what the competition is and I know I will be ready.”
By the way her high school career has started off so far, who could argue.
More on Sydney McLaughlin:
- Sydney McLaughlin's Athlete Profile & Stats on MileSplit
- Video Interview from US Junior Nationals
- Video Interview from New Balance Nationals
- Video Interview from NJ Meet of Champions