SCOTCH PLAINS, N.J. – Runners, to your mark. Get set. Bang!
As a four-year track-and-field athlete, she’s heard it a thousand times before. But, when Sydney McLaughlin of Union Catholic High School takes her starting position on the track in the 400-meter hurdles next month, she will bear the weight of the entire nation on her shoulders.
The 16-year-old hurdler will be the youngest American athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, after her third-place finish in the U.S.Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, earlier in July.
The 2016 Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year broke the World Junior Record in the Women’s 400-meter hurdle finals at the trials en route to becoming the youngest U.S. track-and-field Olympian in 44 years.
“It wasn’t until, like, two days later that it hit me,” McLaughlin said in a press conference at her school on Wednesday. “It was crazy, I woke up and I was like, ‘Whoa, I made the team, I’m going to Rio.’”
Now with under a month until the games begin, the high school junior is preparing by keeping her mind off of the biggest race of her life.
“I do my training, I go to practice every day, but it’s also important just to live life, not stress over track 24/7,” she said. After her regular practice and training in the morning, McLaughlin wants to be a “normal teenager,” hanging out with friends, completing her summer readings and getting her driving learner’s permit.
Young athletes could easily grow complacent, with the prospects of Olympic gold and succeeding in front of thousands of fans and millions more at home on TV. However, the Dunellen resident is excited just to be participating in the games.
“Medaling isn’t really on my mind, placing isn’t on my mind, time isn’t on my mind. I’m just going to go out there and run my race and whatever happens, happens,” she said.
The Dunellen native said she will just try to remain healthy down the stretch before the games begin in August. McLaughlin missed a lot of time in December with mononucleosis.
Around the same time, Mary McLaughlin, Sydney’s mother, grew ill, and frustration motivated the teen. Sydney, who also often listens to Jersey Club music to pump herself up before races, came back with about a month of the indoor season left and still broke a national record.
“I took my anger out on the track,” McLaughlin said. “People don’t realize that without track, I really don’t have anything else to do. People don’t realize that I’m also 16, and I have a social life, and school, and I have friends besides track, and there’s homework, and family. There’s just so much going on that whenever I run on the track, that’s the one place where I don’t have to deal with the pressures of the outside world.”
McLaughlin doesn’t lose sight of what’s important in her life. She won’t be in Rio for the Opening Ceremonies because she said she wants spend her birthday with her friends on August 7.
Family is important to McLaughlin, too. Though her three siblings, who are all accomplished track athletes in their own right, won’t make the voyage down to Rio, her parents, Mary and Willie, along with her lucky yellow blanket, will be with Sydney when she competes.
McLaughlin said she told her mother a long time ago, around the time when she first started to run, that this moment would come.
“I grew up watching the Olympics. When I was six, seeing Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix, I was sitting in my living room and I called my mom and I was like ‘Mom, I’m gonna be like them one day, or at least I want to,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna have to work for it, you know.’”
Dreams became reality when the aspiring-Olympian got to speak with one of her childhood role models, Felix, at the Olympic trials.
“[Felix] told me to enjoy the moment. There’s no real pressure on me, I’m just here for the experience and just to enjoy myself. It’s just a race, it’s the same thing I’ve been doing, and it’s a great platform to just get the experience, because there’s so many years ahead of me.”
When asked to describe the last month or so in one word, McLaughlin did not hesitate to say, “Overwhelming.” However, amid the clamor of being the youngest Olympian this year, the strain of training to compete against the world’s best athletes and even the health concerns in South America, McLaughlin reminds herself, “It’s still track.”
“I’m still running the same races,” she said, “There’s just a lot more attention and it’s on a wider scale, but I treat it the same.”