“Bobby, your girl is doing really, really good,” Moses said.
“Hey, after chasing you down all those years, I learned a little something about the event,” Kersee replied.
Moses took the comment as a high compliment. Kersee once coached athletes who tried in vain to conquer Moses in the 1970s and 1980s as he won 122 consecutive 400-meter hurdles races over 10 years.
“He’s put everything he learned from training guys to beat me and put it into her,” Moses said. “She’s absorbed it all.”
After decades of searching, Kersee found an athlete who may someday challenge the achievements of Moses — or of any other runner who ever tied on a pair of track spikes. On Friday night at the world championships, McLaughlin radically reset the world record she has toyed with over the past year, separating herself even further from a pack that long lost sight of her, elevating the Hayward Field track into some kind of fantasyland.
At the start of 2021, no woman had run once around a track and over 10 hurdles faster than 52 seconds. McLaughlin has broken the record four times since then. She lowered it to 50.68 as the sun set over the gleaming stadium, breaking her record by a staggering 0.73 seconds.
McLaughlin’s time would have beaten two women in Friday’s 400-meter final. The one without hurdles. On NBC, analyst Ato Bolden instantly hailed it as the best track and field performance he had ever witnessed. In the formula World Athletics uses to assess points in all events from pole vaults to throws, McLaughlin’s 50.68 ranked second only to Florence Griffith-Joyner’s record in the 100 meters.
“It’s a flow state,” McLaughlin said. “Just putting everything you’ve done in practice into the race, to the point where you’re just letting your body do what it does. You’re not overthinking. You’re just releasing the gifts and talents that God’s given you.”
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Only 22, McLaughlin resides on a higher plane within her event. Even at a meet in which Noah Lyles made one of Usain Bolt’s records tremble and Athing Mu is entrenching her superiority over 800 meters, McLaughlin stands behind no one in the US track and field hierarchy.
“She’s the prototype for the event,” Moses said.
McLaughlin has already set her gaze on new worlds to conquer. She revealed she and Kersee have discussed moving to a new event — the 400 meters or the 100 meters hurdles — or even adding an event and trying for a double individual medal. The schedule at the 2023 world championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics would allow her to run both the 400 meters hurdles and the 400 flat.
“Bobby’s always coming up with new ideas, so it’s hard to pin down one,” McLaughlin said. “There’s talks of doubles, there’s talks of switching. Honestly, I have no clue. That’s something we’ll go home after the season, discuss, see what we want to do.”
If McLaughlin moves on, she made her last major 400 meters hurdles race an ode to the event. Starting in Lane 5, McLaughlin caught up to everyone on her outside by the middle of the backstretch. Around the second turn, she had passed everyone. When the final turn came, she already had made it a blowout. After she cleared the final hurdle, a pasture of brick-red track separated her from Dutchwoman Femke Bol and American bronze medalist Dalilah Muhammad, the friendly rival whose record McLaughlin took at the US Olympic trials last year and never looked back.
“I definitely thought 50 was possible,” Muhammad said. “After that race, I think 49 is possible.” She paused. “For Sydney.”
Already twice an Olympic gold medalist, McLaughlin has now become a world champion in a manner those steeped in the sport could hardly fathom. Afterward, McLaughlin sat on the track on her backside, legs burning, mouth agape, processing what she had done.
“So many times, the race goes by and you forget what happens,” McLaughlin said. “I really just wanted to sit there for a moment and soak it all in.”
As McLaughlin further entrenched her status as a legend, another one made a surprise return. A week after announcing she had run her final race as the United States won bronze in the 4×400 mixed relay at the outset of the world championships, Allyson Felix will come out of short-lived retirement and run in Saturday’s preliminary round of the women’s 4×400 relay , a USA Track & Field spokesperson said.
Friday night belonged to McLaughlin. She made the 2016 US Olympic team at 16, stamped for greatness from the moment she began going over hurdles in Dunellen, NJ By 2019, though, she still had not surpassed Muhammad, who set the world record while beating McLaughlin at the world championships.
During the pandemic layoff, McLaughlin switched coaches to Kersee, a legendary figure who has coached wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Griffith Joyner and Felix. Kersee is unconventional and notoriously demanding. He instructed McLaughlin to watch old film of Moses, switching her cadence from 15 to 14 strides between hurdles. He entered her in 60- and 100-meter hurdle races early in the season.
“Bobby accepts people that want to come into the camp that know who they’re coming to deal with,” said Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who has become a mentor to McLaughlin. “He’s not going to change for anyone. If you’re going to work with Bobby, you got to take all the good and all the bad that comes with it.”
Dominant and telegenic, McLaughlin has been reluctant to embrace celebrity. She married Andre Levrone Jr., briefly an NFL wide receiver, this spring, which she documented extensively on social media. Otherwise, she shares little of herself publicly beyond athletic brilliance and devotion to her faith.
“I’ve been given a gift and a platform, but it’s not for my own glory,” McLaughlin said. “That’s helped me stay out of a lot of things that could get me into trouble. … I limit my social media. I limit how much I’m on those things. Because ultimately they cannot help me when I get on that line.”
McLaughlin glows in the blocks. She rarely displays emotion on the track, even after she crosses the finish line. One lane over Friday night, Muhammad smiled and waved to the crowd upon being introduced. When McLaughlin’s name boomed over the public address to raucous cheers, she stared at the ground, countenance unchanged.
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“She’s not messing around,” Moses said. “She sees, but she doesn’t see. I can tell. Her mind is so focused that she could see right through you. That’s how I was. I didn’t give a damn.”
The 400-meter hurdles is a race of navigating land mines. Moses viewed the course as an opportunity to make 31 mistakes — the start and then takeoff, flight and landing over all 10 hurdles. Runners rarely stumble over hurdles, but any deficiency in form can doom a competitor. McLaughlin has the athleticism to leap off either foot, and her strength and speed make her wickedly efficient. She makes a complicated race seem simple.
“It doesn’t look like she’s moving that fast,” Moses said. “Sydney looks like she’s barely doing any work at all.”
McLaughlin removed all drama from her race, but in the women’s javelin final American Kara Winger made up for it. On her sixth and final throw, after urging the home crowd, Winger unleashed a throw of 64.05 meters (210 feet 1 inch) that catapulted her from fifth to second. Winger’s massive heave gave American women medals in all four throwing events. At 36, Winger saw her final throw in a major championships delivering her first medal.
As McLaughlin carried his event to new heights, Michael Norman returned to his in the 400. Norman won gold with a gutty final sprint, edging a crowded field in 44.29 seconds. Around the final turn, Norman sprinted even with Grenadian Kirani James, Britain’s Matt Hudson-Smith and South African world record holder Wayde van Niekerk. Norman managed a small lead and held them all off, raising his arms over his head.
“I just want to thank all the people who stuck with me throughout these past three years,” Norman said.
Norman became one of America’s best and most promising sprinters in 2019, tying Jeremy Wariner as the fourth-fastest man ever at 43.45 seconds. But he lost the US championship that year to Fred Kerley and failed to make the final at the world championships with an injury. In Tokyo, Norman entered as the favorite but finished a disappointing fifth before saving his Olympics by winning gold in the 4×400 relay. Still only 24, Norman is again on top of the world.
It was a good night for American men running once around the track. After adding to their debacle-laden history in Tokyo, the US men’s 4×100 team — Christian Coleman, Noah Lyles, Elijah Hall and Marvin Bracy-Williams — bolted one lap in 37.87, the fastest time in the world this year, in a preliminary round . In a display of their chemistry, Lyles led them afterward in an impromptu group rap of Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares.”
“Nice day at the office,” Williams-Bracy said. “We’re just having fun.”
The show stopped once McLaughlin stepped into the blocks. She is only 22. She is a gold medalist and world champion, an athlete who operates on a level few peers can imagine, let alone know. She could expand her athletic horizon or continue to push her specialty into new frontiers or both. She has achieved greatness so young, and yet she remains unsatisfied.
“I think there’s still more to go,” McLaughlin said. “I think we’re all figuring out that, yes, there’s 10 barriers, but we can run them a lot faster than people think. There’s no such thing as a perfect race.”
That may be so. But just about nobody has come closer than Sydney McLaughlin, the 22-year-old who has it at all and still wants more.