Sydney McLaughlin was running out of time.
In an epic showdown for the ages, McLaughlin, the world record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, was trailing defending gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad by a couple strides as she approached the ninth hurdle in the gold medal race in the women's 400 hurdles on Tuesday at the Olympics in Tokyo.
But then McLaughlin did what she does best, she dug down deep and roared back with a furious charge.
The 21-year-old McLaughlin, still slightly behind Muhammad as they headed for the 10th and final barrier, used her superior flat speed and big heart to pull even as they came off the final hurdle, and then won the 40-meter sprint to the line, overtaking her rival with about 25 meters left. McLaughlin then stormed across the line to edge Muhammad and capture the gold medal in heart-pounding, electrifying, and world record fashion!
In one of the most eagerly anticipated matchups of the Olympics, the race more than lived up to all the hype as McLaughlin, a 2017 graduate of Union Catholic, stopped the clock at a mind-numbing and jaw-dropping 51.46 to shatter her own world record of 51.90 that she ran to finish first at the Olympic Trials in June.
The 31-year-old Muhammad, who blasted out to a quick lead and ran very aggressively, just couldn't hold off the fury that McLaughlin's threw down to close out the race. Muhammad also ran the race of her life, running well under the previous world record with her runner-up time of 51.58. Femke Bol of the Netherlands won the bronze medal in a European record 52.03, which places her third all-time!
"We train for attacking that last hurdle because we know it's a race that is going to come right down to the end,'' said McLaughlin, the youngest woman to ever strike Olympic gold in the 400 hurdles. "So I just gave it everything I had.''
The historic finish by McLaughlin, and Muhammad marked the first time in Olympic history that athletes from the same country placed 1-2 in the women's 400 hurdles.
The McLaughlin-Muhammad rivalry has pushed the dynamic duo to raise the bar higher and higher in the 400 hurdles as they've run faster and faster each time they square off. The two all-time greats have now combined to produce a world record in their last four races against each other, which they have split.
At the 2019 U.S. Championships, Muhammad, a native of Queens, N.Y., was first in a then world record 52.20, and McLaughlin second in 52.88. At the 2019 World Championships, Muhammad lowered the world record to 52.16 and McLaughlin was second in 52.23. Then McLaughlin avenged those defeats at the Olympic Trials this past June by winning in 51.90 with Muhammad second in 52.42. And then on Tuesday, the two staged an instant classic in the latest and greatest chapter in their rivalry as McLaughlin went 51.46 and Muhammad 52.58.
"Iron sharpens iron,'' said McLaughlin. "We make each other work harder, and run faster.''
For McLaughlin, who grew up in Dunellen and will turn 22 this Saturday, this always seemed like a moment she was destined for.
After smashing every possible 400 hurdle record during her high school days, and making the 2016 Olympic Team when she was 16 to become the youngest U.S. athlete to compete in track and field at the Olympics in 44 years (she advanced to the semifinals in Rio), the expectations and pressure have been enormous. But she handled it all like seasoned veteran.
After one of the greatest one and done college seasons as a freshman at Kentucky, where she won the 2018 NCAA 400 hurdle title and broke the collegiate record in the event, McLaughlin turned pro and signed with New Balance.
Then last year, McLaughlin switched coaches from Joanna Hayes to renowned hurdle guru Bobby Kersee. Kersee coached his wife (Jackie Joyner-Kersee), Florence Griffith-Joyner, and has coached Allyson Felix since 2005.
Kersee had McLaughlin focus on the 100 hurdles for most of this early season to improve her speed, and her hurdling technique, primarily her none dominant lead.. She ran five 100 HH races during the season, including a PR and Olympic Trials qualifying time of 12.65, before her first 400 hurdle race of the season in early June.
And another huge key to McLaughlin's historic season is that Kersee had McLaughlin change her stride pattern down from 15 to 14 steps between the hurdles to help cut down the advantage Muhammad had on her in the past. That turned out to be a huge difference maker that helped McLaughlin deliver her masterpiece on the world's biggest stage on Tuesday in what will go down as one of the greatest moments in New Jersey track and field history.
There is a good chance that we will see McLaughlin and Muhammad on the track again in Tokyo. The coaches for Team USA have the option to put her on the 4x400 relay, and it would be shocking if McLaughlin and Muhammad aren't put on that team after what they just did. At the 2019 World Championships in Doha, McLaughlin (second leg) and Muhammad (third leg) ran on the winning 4x400. Also look for Athing Mu of Trenton, who set an American record when she won the gold medal in the 800, to be inserted in the 4x400 lineup as well.