TOKYO - For a moment they each hovered over the final hurdle, suspended in the air, armed with the painful knowledge of what the other woman again would force her to summon. Daliliah Muhammad’s right foot hit the track first. Three lanes to the left, Sydney McLaughlin landed next, and once more, she would have to chase down her beloved rival.
For two years, McLaughlin and Muhammad had pushed one another to rearrange what is possible in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. McLaughlin recently had seized the world record from Muhammad, but for at least another 40 meters, Muhammad still owned the Olympic gold medal. McLaughlin wanted it more than anything, and she would have to take it the hard way.
Wednesday morning at National Stadium, Muhammad ran the 400-meter hurdles in a time that would have beat any other woman on any prior day. But McLaughlin caught her and passed her on the final sprint. She lunged over the line in 51.46 seconds and lowered her own world record by 0.44 seconds. Muhammad crossed in 51.58 seconds to defeat bronze medalist Femke Bol of the Netherlands, who at 52.03 seconds become the third-fastest woman ever in the event.
McLaughlin has it all now: the world record, the gold medal, the oncoming rush of full-blown celebrity. She debuted at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics days after her 17th birthday, an unsure and overwhelmed prodigy. Three days shy of her 22nd birthday, McLaughlin stood atop the sport, a telegenic face of U.S. track and field. At the finish line, she crouched on the track with no expression on her face.
“It’s just the flood of emotions that you don’t know how to process,” McLaughlin said. “I was just really grateful to finish this race, to be here on this stage and have the opportunity. Yeah. Too many emotions that you have no emotions.”
On Tuesday, Rai Benjamin cried after he broke the men’s 400-meter hurdles world record and still lost to Karsten Warholm. Muhammad understood Benjamin in a way no one else on Earth could. But she is at a different stage of her career. She felt no ambiguity about her time and found no disappointment in silver.
“It puts it into a different perspective for me,” Muhammad said. “I’m truly proud of second place. Yes, to come home with second after breaking a world record, it could be mixed emotions. But right now, I truly don’t feel that way. I’m truly proud of it. I’m truly happy with the performance we both put on, and kudos to Sydney.”
Muhammad and McLaughlin knew a world record would be the cover charge for a gold medal. Muhammad’s coach, Lawrence Johnson, told her at a recent practice she could run 51.70 seconds, which would shatter McLaughlin’s record by 0.20 seconds.
“Is that fast enough?” Muhammad asked him.
The first days of track and field only bolstered their belief. Personal bests fell like leaves in autumn. Sprinters and jumpers extolled the track’s airy surface. The men’s 400-meter hurdles, in which Warholm broke the unfathomable barrier of 46 seconds and six national records fell, cemented that the women’s race would be unlike any other in history.
“It definitely sparked a little bit of energy and adrenaline,” McLaughlin said.
“I almost couldn’t watch the men,” Muhammad said. “Just thinking about what might happen in our race was becoming overwhelming.”
The women delivered, for the second straight day, one of the greatest races in Olympic history. Had Bol run the 400-meter hurdles in 52.03 seconds 39 days ago, she would have broken the world record. She ran it Wednesday and won a bronze medal.
“It’s cool to be part of this next generation of athletes pushing the bounds of what’s possible,” McLaughlin said.
Starting in Lane 7, Muhammad could not see McLaughlin and Bol. She knew they possessed great finishes, and she wanted to start fast, to build a lead and then try to hold on. “That was one of the few cards I could play,” Muhammad said.
McLaughlin could see Muhammad burst over the first three hurdles. She deployed patience, trusting that she could stay close and make up any ground necessary over the final 40 meters.
Those 40 meters had been the focus of her preparation for Tokyo. Last year, during the pandemic break, McLaughlin switched coaches to Bobby Kersee, a legendary figure at his 11th Olympics, who coached icons from Florence Griffith Joyner to Allyson Felix. McLaughlin could rely on his experience and advice from Felix.
Kersee showed McLaughlin clips of hurdling legend Edwin Moses and convinced her that, with her long stride, she could take 14 steps between hurdles, rather than 15 as had been standard for women. It redefined her ceiling. In McLaughlin’s first race of the season, Kersee had her run an indoor 60-meter hurdles while leaping from her off foot. McLaughlin finished in last place, an unusual humiliation for an athlete of her stature and ability. Looking back, McLaughlin understands the purpose.
“Sometimes, you have to lose in order to win,” McLaughlin said. “It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Those lessons built into Wednesday’s race. McLaughlin powered over hurdles. Muhammad nudged the gap wider, but McLaughlin conserved her energy. McLaughlin shrunk the lead entering the 10th hurdle.
If Muhammad made one error, it was there. She approached the 10th hurdle too fast, and could have leaped with either leg. She chose her right, which forced her to shorten her stride. The hiccup cost her speed at the start of the final sprint.
“The perfectionist in me looks back at the race and thinks, you could have done this, you could have done that,” Muhammad said. “But you know what? No. I did all that I could do in those moments.”
McLaughlin and Muhammad pumped their arms. They emptied themselves. McLaughlin eked past Muhammad with about 20 meters left. McLaughlin leaned over the line. The record flashed: 51.46, an astonishing 0.88 seconds faster than the record Muhammad had broken two years ago at the U.S. championships.
After McLaughlin rose from her crouch, she and Muhammad embraced. Muhammad had beaten McLaughlin at the 2019 U.S. and world championships, moments that McLaughlin had believed would be her breakthrough. McLaughlin had broken Muhammad’s world record at the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Both reject the term “rivalry” to describe their relationship. They had grown united in the pursuit of each other. At once, they strove together and strove against one another.
“You need somebody who’s going to push you to be your best, and that’s what we do so well,” McLaughlin said. “Every time we step on the track, it’s always something fast. You need that. I don’t think it’s a rivalry. It’s two athletes wanting to be their best and knowing that there’s another great girl who’s going to help you get there.”
Back home in Dunellen, N.J., Willie and Mary McLaughlin watched their daughter while sitting across from one another on the couch. As the Star-Ledger reported earlier this week, Willie underwent a heart transplant in February.
“It’s interesting being in a position where you have a daughter who has the potential of breaking a world record as opposed to just being a participant,” Willie McLaughlin said. “The expectations are a little bit different. It’s an amazing feeling.”
On top of the medal stand, with Muhammad standing in front of her, McLaughlin’s eyes moistened as the national anthem played. Wednesday’s race was one to treasure. Muhammad will turn 32 in February. As McLaughlin realizes the full extent of her powers, Muhammad’s will diminish. Muhammad did not limit herself, but they may not race again as equals. She planned with certainty to race McLaughlin at the world championships next fall in Oregon. “We’ll see what happens in 2024,” she said.
They may take the track once more not only as equals, but teammates. McLaughlin and Muhammad could run in the 4x400-meter relay together. “It would be really cool,” McLaughlin said. Even cooler: Though it would mean forsaking U.S. trials champion Quanera Hayes, the United States could pair them with Athing Mu and Felix in a dream final foursome.
However these Olympics unfold, McLaughlin and Muhammad always will have Wednesday. For one more day, they pushed each further than they ever had before, than anyone had ever seen.