TOKYO — There was no celebratory scream when Sydney McLaughlin crossed the finish line Wednesday. She didn't throw her hands in the air or double over on the track. There were no tears. No boasting. No dancing. And only a quick glimpse of a smile.
"Too many emotions, that you have no emotions," she said later.
She appeared calm and subdued even after the crowning moment of her career – victory in one of the fastest 400-meter hurdles races in Olympic history, and the second in as many days.
The 21-year-old New Jersey native broke her own world record by nearly half a second Wednesday en route to Olympic gold, outsprinting compatriot Dalilah Muhammad – the reigning world champion and Olympic gold medalist – after both women cleared the 10th and final hurdle. McLaughlin crossed the finish line in 51.46 seconds, setting a bar that everyone else will now try to clear. Muhammad, 31, also broke the previous world record. And Femke Bol of the Netherlands, who took bronze, finished just .13 away.
It was an epic race, eerily similar to the men's 400-meter hurdles event that took place the previous day.
"It’s not one of the hot events that people usually want to watch a whole lot," McLaughlin said of the 400 hurdles. "But we’ve definitely made it something very interesting."
For so long, McLaughlin has been viewed in the world of track and field as a prodigy. Her accomplishments have been viewed within the context of her age.
As a freshman at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey, she broke a state record in the first race she ran, according to her high school coach, Mike McCabe. She qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics when she was just 16.
Even though she didn't make it to the final, McLaughlin became a track celebrity upon her return. She appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2017. At track meets during her senior year, she would often be approached by high-school students – some of whom were likely competing against her – and asked for autographs, McCabe said.
“We would bring an extra coach to make sure that, when we went to indoor meets and stuff, we could keep people away from her if we needed to," he said.
After a stint at the University of Kentucky, McLaughlin turned pro and found herself continuing to climb the ranks, but often finishing second to Muhammad. They have long been not just the two fastest women in the 400-meter hurdles field, but also the two fastest in the history of the event.
Then, last summer, McLaughlin decided that it was time for a change. She started training with a new coach, Bobby Kersee, and alongside Allyson Felix, one of the most decorated track and field athletes in Olympic history. Kersee altered her approach and refined her technique. In her first indoor meet of the season, McLaughlin competed in the 60-meter hurdles simply to practice leading with her non-dominant leg – like a right-footed soccer player only using his or her left. Unsurprisingly, she finished last.
"Sometimes you have to lose in order to win," McLaughlin said.
All of what transpired Wednesday had long been expected of her: The Olympic gold medal, the world record, all of it years in the making, finally falling into place. While many athletes go through a lengthy evolution, McLaughlin's career has essentially had two stages: She was a teenage prodigy, destined for the top, and then she was there.
That's not to say it has been easy, of course. Just that the challenges she's had to overcome are different. McLaughlin has had to grow up faster than other 21-year-olds. (She'll turn 22 on Saturday.) And she's had to carry expectations that the outside world has placed upon her, this external idea that McLaughlin will break a record or do something incredible every time she steps on the track.
"The running part comes easier to her than the average person. But to do it with all the hype?" McCabe said. "On a smaller level, it’s like LeBron (James) when he’s in high school on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Obviously on a much smaller scale, but you have to be able to produce under a lot of pressure."
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McLaughlin said those things got to her a bit in 2016 – the expectations, the hype, the scrutiny and comments on Twitter and Instagram. "When you have a lot of outside voices coming at you, it can definitely alter what you have going on internally," she said. It's why, in the leadup to the Tokyo Games, she stayed off social media and "just stayed in my bubble."
McLaughlin said her faith in God has grown in recent years, and helped change her perspective on pressure. She's described it as "an illusion."
"It’s a weight that you put on yourself, that doesn’t really exist," she said. "It’s the fear of something that hasn’t happened yet, in your mind, that you’re assuming has already happened. So it’s really just making sure that your thoughts are positive and what you want them to be in order to make them happen in reality."
Perhaps that's why McLaughlin didn't appear outwardly elated or shocked Wednesday, when she won an Olympic gold medal in world-record time. She always knew she had the talent and desire to do it. It was just a matter of getting it done. As she crouched on the track, peering up at the scoreboard, she was exactly where she expected to be.
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sydney McLaughlin wins gold in Olympic women's 400m hurdles in Tokyo