When viewed through the lens of social media, the life of a teenage athletics icon can seem deceptively glamorous. But as Sydney McLaughlin knows, the routine required to reach the top is far more mundane.
Whether it’s the alarm that pulls her from her bed at 6am each morning or the hours spent toiling in the weights room, track or study halls at the University of Kentucky, the 18-year-old New Jersey native does not get by on her gifts alone; there’s also a whole lot of graft.
And selfies – lots and lots of selfies. Like most teenagers, McLaughlin documents much of her life online, but in truth it’s her achievements more than her approach to social media that has led to her to be being stopped so often by her adoring fans for photos.
“My friends get a bit tired of it,” says McLaughlin. “They’re like: ‘Sydney, why do people want to take pictures with you? You’re not even that cool’.”
But her fans, along with the various shoe companies lining up to sign her into a professional contract, think otherwise.
Whether it’s in her hometown in Dunellen, New Jersey, on the college campus in Lexington, Kentucky or through the torrent of support flowing her way on social media, McLaughlin is acutely aware of the level of fame she has accrued over the past two years.
“When I made the Olympic team and came back home, there were so many people wishing me well and it was great to see the community come together,” said McLaughlin, who was just 16 when she toed the line in Rio. “To see younger kids on social media telling me: ‘you inspire me, and I want to do track because of you,’ it’s amazing to hear.”
But McLaughlin is well aware that fame, especially at such a young age, can prove a double-edged sword. “Having that platform can be a very good thing and it can be a very bad thing,” she says. “But my parents have done a great job helping me manage it and to make sure it’s a positive image for young kids to see.”
In that sense, the decision McLaughlin made in 2017 shines as a bright example, particularly in an era when so many talented young sportspeople make their decisions based on the bottom line.
As the sport’s most marketable teenager – McLaughlin has a social media following in the hundreds of thousands – she had lucrative offers to turn professional after a decorated high school career, but instead she chose to accept a scholarship to the University of Kentucky to run as an amateur in the NCAA.
“Making the decision to go pro is a very big one and I think I’m not at that point yet,” she says. “I wanted to get the experience of being a college kid, to walk on the campus and have the freedom away from my parents, to live a normal life but still get to run.
“We talked about it and money isn’t really the issue. I have everything I need to progress so I’m getting as much growth as I can before finally stepping on to that [professional] stage.”
At Kentucky, McLaughlin trains with a strong collegiate team under the guidance of coach Edrick Floreal, who also coaches 100m hurdles world record-holder Keni Harrison, Olympic 110m hurdles champion Omar McLeod and world 400m hurdles champion Kori Carter.
“It’s an amazing group of people,” says McLaughlin. “Being able to train with them and have them give me advice, it definitely helps when I’m stressing out.”
The difference in workload compared to her high school days, however, proved hard to cope with. “Training is much more intense,” she says. “I was used to one hard day a week but now I have two hard, hard days and two medium days. You could get away with a lot of things in high school but not at the next level.”
Swapping parties for practice
Her routine is indicative of an all-in approach to the new environment, and McLaughlin’s life is far from that of your typical freshman. She wakes at 6am, hits the weight room at 7am, then has physical therapy before a day of classes (McLaughlin plans to major in journalism).
After that, she joins her teammates at practice, then she’ll squeeze in more treatment before dinner, and her evenings are spent either with her tutor or in study hall. “I’ve been to zero parties,” she says.
Late last year McLaughlin took time out to fly to Monaco with her older brother Taylor for the IAAF Athletics Awards, where she was presented with a gold plaque to commemorate the world U20 400m hurdles record she set earlier that year, clocking 53.82 to finish sixth at the US Championships in Sacramento.
Given the blazing speed of that run, it seems fair to ask McLaughlin if it was the closest she’s come to the perfect race, but she’s quick to set the record straight.
“It was very sloppy,” she says. “I think it was the nerves of the race, it being the trials and such an intense high. It took until 150 to go for me to realise that there were four of us fighting for that third spot. There’s a whole lot more there.”
But McLaughlin, at least in the short term, will now turn her back on her best event.
“We’re switching to short hurdles to get my form and technique right and probably the 200 to work on speed,” she says. “I think the 400 hurdles is where I’m meant to be but for now I’m working on different elements to help that race progress.”
That approach is already starting to pay off. During the indoor season she set a world U20 indoor 300m best of 36.12, a world U20 indoor 400m record of 50.36 and a 200m PB of 22.68 to move to fourth on the world U20 indoor all-time list.
More recently, she opened her outdoor campaign last weekend with a 22.39 and 50.07 sprint double at the Florida Relays, taking her to fourth and sixth respectively on the world U20 200m and 400m all-time lists.
For any teenager, moving 700 miles away from home and her family could be a trying time, but McLaughlin has settled in well to the new surroundings. “My parents ask if I’m homesick and I keep saying no, so I think they’re pretty upset with me,” she says.
Of course, she makes sure to stay in constant contact with them, and indeed older brother Taylor, who has a best of 49.45 for 400m hurdles which he ran to take silver at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016.
Both siblings were brought to the sport in their youth by their father, Willie, a 45.30 400m runner. “We didn’t take it too seriously; my father just made sure we enjoyed the sport,” says Taylor, who is based 300 miles north of Sydney at the University of Michigan.
“I guess, like any other younger sibling, you love her and she’s annoying,” he says with a laugh. “It’s funny when you open up your feed and see her face plastered everywhere, but I try to support her as much as possible.”
And while Sydney is getting stuck in to her first foray into NCAA competition, she’ll also have the chance to chase gold – and thereby outdo her older brother – at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018.
Three years ago she pulled on the USA kit for the first time at the IAAF World U18 Championships in Cali, Colombia, and the experience gained proved pivotal on the road to the Olympic Games. “To get that first exposure before heading to Rio and knowing how to deal with it was important,” she says. “I made a lot of friendships there and that helps because all of us will progress together.”
But few, of course, have progressed as fast as McLaughlin, who is adamant that in the years to come, her work ethic, attitude and ambition will continue to match her otherworldly talent.
“I think,” she says, “that anything is possible.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF