SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Sydney McLaughlin flashed a huge smile and clapped her hands in pure joy as she stood in the second floor hallway at Union Catholic High School on Thursday, Dec. 22.
The legendary track and field star, a U.S. Olympian in 2016 and a 2017 graduate of Union Catholic, was reacting to a portrait of herself that was unveiled during a special ceremony at the school.
The portrait, painted by artist Charlie Churchill, was in a display case that's filled with memorabilia from McLaughlin's historic career as a Viking. As the portrait was unveiled, the gathering of family, friends, and Union Catholic faculty members all applauded.
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McLaughlin was astonished at how the portrait looked.
"It looks so realistic,'' said McLaughlin, now a freshman at the University of Kentucky. "I think he (Mr. Churchill) did an amazing and awesome job on it. I envisioned what it would look like, but now that it's done it is crazy to see. I really like it. I wish I could take it home with me. It's so cool.''
McLaughlin said it felt great to be back at her alma mater for the first time since graduating last May.
"It nice to be back here at Union Catholic where is all started with my family and friends and people from UC,'' said McLaughlin. "It brings back lots of great memories.''
Churchill said plans for the portrait began last year when he was approached by his friends, Bill Richardson and his wife Mary, grandparents of students who attended Union Catholic.
"Bill and Mary approached me about doing a portrait of Sydney, and it took about three months to finish,'' said Churchill, who lives in Secaucus. "I took a lot of pictures of her and did lots of research on Sydney to make sure I got everything right to make it look as accurate as possible. It was so much fun for me to do. I'm glad she's happy with it.''
McLaughlin is considered by many people to be the greatest female high school track and field athlete of all-time. She was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic track and field team to compete at the Olympic Games when she finished third in the 400 meter hurdles at the 2016 Olympic Trials at the age of 16. She advanced to the semifinal round in the 400 hurdles at the Olympic Games in Rio.
Although she didn't qualify for the World Championship team this past summer, McLaughlin ran the fastest 400 hurdle race of her life when she placed sixth in 53.82 at the U.S. Championships in Sacramento, shattering her own World Junior record (under 20 years old) of 54.03.
McLaughlin finished her legendary high school career with 13 national titles (7 individual/6 on relays), a NJ. record tying 11 individual N.J. Meet of Champions titles (7 outdoors and 4 indoors), seven state records, four national records, and one World Junior record.
She added one final piece of history to her legendary career this past summer when she became the first athlete, male or female, to win the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year in consecutive years. For her accomplishments, she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
How are things going now for McLaughlin?
Well, she got her college career off to a stunning start in her NCAA debut last Friday night at the Hoosier Open at the University of Indiana.
McLaughlin burned up oval with a sizzling time of 36.12 to win the 300. That smashed the World Junior record (under 20 years old), is No. 2 in U.S. history, No. 6 all-time in the World, and is No. 1 all-time in NCAA history at low altitude, and No. 1 all-time on the NCAA list among U.S. born athletes.
"The first college race was a little nerve-wracking, but I'm happy with it and we know what we have to fix to run faster,'' said McLaughlin, who will compete next at the Kentucky Invitational Jan. 12-13.
McLaughlin said her transition to college life and college track has gone well.
"It's been pretty smooth,'' said McLaughlin, who will return to Kentucky this Tuesday. "College track is a lot different. It's a lot more intense, but things are going well and I feel good about making the adjustments I need to and continuing to make progressions.''
McLaughlin often gets asked about her plans to turn pro.
"I'm just taking things one season at a time,'' said McLaughlin. "Right now I'm just focusing on continuing to make the transition to college track, so we'll see how things go and see what happens and make those decisions when the time feels right.''