She's been dubbed the future of track and field. A phenom. Arguably the greatest 400-meter hurdler the world has ever seen. But Sydney McLaughlin, two-time Olympian, 400H world record holder, 2020 400H Olympic champion, is more than her athletic prowess, accolades, and medals.
McLaughlin isn’t the same athlete we met when she made her first Olympic team at 17-years-old in 2016, or when she broke the 400H collegiate record at the University of Kentucky. She’s done the work—spiritually, mentally, and physically—and as a result, has experienced tremendous growth in all aspects of life.
"Growth" is the key word here, as it's been the theme of her life over the past year and a half. After the 2020 Olympics were postponed due to COVID, she says "no one knew what to expect." Through it all, she's accepted the challenges with grace—but it wasn't always easy. She describes it as, “somewhat uncomfortable, but necessary, and obviously a little bit challenging.”
Running on the world's stage, McLaughlin has spent much of her career pushing herself to limits she never thought she could reach, challenging herself to the highest levels both mentally and physically. And that, she says, is where the growth has happened. “I’ve learned that when you push yourself in uncomfortable states for long enough, they become comfortable," she says. "Even just in training, when you're out of shape and things are very painful, if you continue to push yourself at a high level in that uncomfortability for long enough it will become comfortable, and then you have to reach a new goal and pick a new place to push to."
Being one of the top competitors in her category doesn't come without its pressures, but over the last few years, McLaughlin has learned to handle the expectations and labels placed on her. Now, no matter what people say or write about her, she simply blocks it out.
“I used to listen to all of that, and I used to kind of apply it to my life as if that were the standard," she says. "But I think just recently in the past few years, understanding that I truly only perform for an audience of one, which is God, and everything else is just noise in the background, it simplifies what I do to a place where I don't have to worry about what everybody else thinks.” With this mentality, she’s able to navigate sport and life without bearing the unnecessary weight of other people's expectations.
Mentally and emotionally, McLaughlin has found a way to cope with these internal and external pressures through her faith. “For me, that's been the biggest source of peace in all of it,” she says, explaining that she now has a true understanding of what's important. "It can be a lot of weight when you’re listening to what everybody has to say and you’re putting all of this unnecessary, added 'pressure' on yourself to perform to a certain standard,” she says.
Understandably, McLaughlin's role as a world-renowned athlete has forced her to grow up more quickly than most 22-year-olds. After all, most of us have never experienced being thrust into the spotlight for doing something we enjoy without ever asking for it. But strip away the medals and the titles, she's a typical 20-something who likes to read, write, shop hang out with her friends and fiancé, and watch Netflix.
“When you get to a place where you’re in the Olympics or you’re a professional athlete, people only see [a portion of your life], whether its 51 seconds [of a race] or four quarters of a game," she says. "But the rest of the day, when you’re not practicing or training, you’re still a person who has a life, and family, and friends, and I think those are the things that make me who I am I think track is really just a very small part of all that."
McLaughlin has also learned the importance of finding and using her voice. When she was younger, she often kept her thoughts and feelings to herself, she says. But in time, she’s realized how important speaking out can be to every relationship in her life, both personally and professionally. “I had to start getting comfortable flexing that muscle even though it’s one that I rarely used," she says, "It's becoming a little bit less scary to me now, and it’s also brought so much clarity. It’s just amazing to see how being direct and saying what you want to say can just clear up so many things.”
Although McLaughlin has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager, it’s obvious that she hasn’t even begun to tap into her full potential. More importantly, she’s unapologetically and confidently walking (or really, running) in her purpose.
“If you were to ask me a couple of years ago, I would’ve been like 'my purpose is running super fast and winning medals and breaking records,’” she says, adding that this isn’t completely wrong. But she believes her real purpose is to love God and people. "I think track is the opportunity and the space that he’s given me to do those things, and the gift in which I can have a platform to reach people,” she adds.
McLaughlin isn’t worried about what the future holds, on or off the track. “I just want to run," she says. "I just want to encourage people. I just want to share the gospel and live life while I can. That’s about it for me… I can do without all that other stuff.”
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