Only a few athletes in track and field’s long history have dominated their event in the manner in which Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone has monopolised the 400m hurdles.
In the hurdles world before McLaughlin-Levrone, it took years to shave fractions of seconds off records, and winning races didn’t always mean rewriting history. But the once-in-a-lifetime athlete is obliterating that mindset as quickly as she is destroying records.
She has run five of the six fastest times in history. And in an astonishing 13-month period between June 2021 and July 2022, she broke the world record on four occasions!
The last and most staggering of those runs came at last year’s World Championships on a clear night at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
In a consummate display that combined athleticism, technique and strategy, McLaughlin-Levrone left a loaded field for dead from the gun. At the 150-metre mark, her biggest rivals, Femke Bol and Dalilah Muhammad, were playing catch-up. By the time the American reached the final curve, it was clear this would strictly be a race against the clock.
McLaughlin-Levrone hared through to the tape in a stunning 50.68 seconds, demolishing her world mark of 51.41s, set a month earlier. If that weren’t jaw-dropping enough, consider this perspective: her time after negotiating 10 hurdles over 400m would have seen her beat two runners in the women’s flat 400m final at the same World Championships!
She ran just once more in 2022 before taking a break to marry American football player Andre Levrone. But she had done enough in a superlative shortened season to be named the World Athlete of the Year alongside pole vaulter Armand Duplantis.
Her absence from the track has made athletics fans miss her all the more — there is a sense of heightened anticipation over her return because the possibilities this season are enticing.
Will she be able to get back to her best after the time off? Can the rapidly improving Bol challenge her supremacy? And will McLaughlin-Levrone break her mark again at the World Championships in Budapest in August?
Answering these questions requires an understanding of what makes the 23-year-old so special. The mix of improved track surfaces and new technology in the spikes that hurdling great Edwin Moses compared to “having trampolines on your shoes” has no doubt helped her on her record-busting spree, but others of her generation have access to this, as well.
McLaughlin-Levrone’s natural athleticism is one of the points of difference. Born into a family of athletes — her father almost made the 1984 American Olympic team for the 400m and her mother was a high-school runner — young Sydney’s prodigious talent was apparent very early.
She dominated the junior ranks, proving to be an impressive all-round athlete who excelled in hurdling events and was competitive in flat sprints. At 18, she set personal bests of 50.07 in the 400m, 22.39 in the 200m and clocked a wind-assisted 11.07 in the 100m.
The 400m hurdles final at the 2019 World Championships was a turning point. The premier 400m hurdler of the time, Muhammad, broke the world record for a second time with a mark of 52.16s to take gold. McLaughlin, as she was known then, lost by a mere 0.07 seconds. The defeat stung the then 20-year-old, but she also knew she was within touching distance of glory.
There was no looking back after connecting with coach Bob Kersee, who has guided several greats, including his legendary wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, to Olympic and World success.
Kersee’s coaching regimen began to pay quick dividends: McLaughlin-Levrone broke the world record at the Olympic trials (51.90), the Olympics (51.46), the US nationals (51.41) and the World Championships, which witnessed the maiden voyage into times in the 50s.
“Bobby knows the sport inside and out in a way that not many people fully understand,” McLaughlin-Levrone told World Athletics. “He has helped me mentally grow, not just as an athlete but as a woman. It translates through our training into competitions.”
McLaughlin-Levrone said Kersee was a master at identifying how an athlete’s strengths could be applied to a specific event. Her strength, she said, was her natural stride pattern — she runs with 14 strides between hurdles, while most runners take 15. “I used to think that I had to conform to what the stride pattern normally is for other athletes but we learned that it’s actually a strength to use it the way that I was made,” she said.
Indeed, Bol is looking to emulate McLaughlin-Levrone’s stride pattern in her bid to reinvent herself and catch the greatest 400m hurdler of all time. The 6’0” Bol has, until now, run with 15 strides between each barrier, but will open her races doing 14 strides this season, much like the 5’9” McLaughlin-Levrone, who typically maintains that pattern until hurdle number seven.
Whetting the appetite
The Dutch athlete’s pace in the 400m flat early in the season — she set the world indoor record with a sensational 49.26 four days before her 23rd birthday in February — has whetted the appetite for her clashes with McLaughlin-Levrone in the hurdles this summer.
McLaughlin-Levrone knows she is being chased, but is eyeing loftier pursuits. “I look at that [50.68s] race and as wonderful as it was, there are still three or four mistakes that I made,” she said. “Bobby has told me multiple times that I could have done better. So there’s room to grow.
“I think we’re pushing the boundaries of the sport, especially in our event. At some point, we could do maybe the 400m, or maybe the 100 hurdles. Bobby says to just really enjoy the 400 hurdles while I’m doing it, and then, if you want to expand, go from there.
“This year, we’ll be more in Europe on the circuit… after last year we kind of figured out our rhythm and now we’ll be able to branch out a little more. I haven’t run the 400 competitively in a few years. Once we decide what is best for 2023, that’s what we’ll do. Nothing is off the table.
“There’s room in both to accomplish great things and continue pushing my times. I think anything is possible. It’s just a matter of preparation, determination and putting all the pieces together on the day. So, the sky’s the limit for sure.”