What the Olympian has learned from her losses powers her toward her next win.
In her first race of 2021—the 60-meter hurdles at the New Balance Grand Prix—Olympian Sydney McLaughlin came in dead last. “I’ve never come in last in my life,” she said in an exclusive interview with Tonal. “But I think it’s necessary to know how to lose, and how to make a lesson out of every loss you’ve taken so that moving forward you don’t make the same mistakes again.”
It took less than four months for McLaughlin to learn what she needed from that particular loss. In June, she became the first woman ever to break the 52-second barrier in the 400-meter hurdle race at the U.S. Track and Field Trials; in August, she won the gold medal—breaking her own world record in the process—in the 400-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.
Her secret? Perseverance. “To me, strength means perseverance,” she said. “It’s about facing that threshold of being so uncomfortable that sometimes you just don’t want to push through. But so much joy can lie on the other side of that.”
Case in point: McLaughlin says just being in Tokyo required more strength than she’s ever had to summon. “I had to get over the mental hurdles that my coach wasn’t there for a couple of days; I had no friends or family there; and we had to deal with all these Covid-19 protocols. It was really challenging,” she explained.
Despite those obstacles, she brought home not just the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles, but another gold for the 4 x 400-meter relay. “I think those are the moments in which you grow the most,” she said. “As humans, we’re natural worriers, and there’s always something we wish we could have a hold of. But in those moments where things become overwhelming, focusing on controlling only what you can control brings a lot of peace.”
McLaughlin set the bar high for herself from the start—at 16 years old, she became the youngest athlete to qualify for the U.S. Track and Field team since 1980 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and after one season at the University of Kentucky, she turned pro in 2018.
“It’s a constant goal of wanting to be better than I was,” she said. “Whether I run track for one year or 10 years, being the best in whatever I put my effort towards is what motivates me to keep going. There’s always another race, always something more to work toward, and so it’s about pushing myself to be the best that I can possibly be.”
Achieving that kind of goal requires dogged dedication. McLaughlin trains under the tutelage of coach Bobby Kersee, one of the most renowned sprints and hurdles coaches in the world. You’ll also find her using Tonal—which she calls “a game-changer.”
“The fact that you can use it any time of day, that you don’t need a trainer for it, that you can do almost any exercise on it, that versatility is crucial to me,” she said. McLaughlin’s strength training routine consists of a lot of Olympic lifts—power cleans, squats, deadlifts—and isometric unilateral exercises. “As a hurdler, that’s especially important for me, because I’m always jumping off one leg and landing on another,” she explained.
The offseason for McLaughlin is all about shoring up the little muscles in her body that might not be as strong as others, so she can head into track-specific training with a base of strength that bulletproofs her body against injury.
She also prioritizes recovery to stay on her A game. “I know that if I get a massage and spend 10 minutes waist-deep in an ice bath, just flushing everything out, I’m not going to feel as sore the next day, and I can train at the highest level,” she said. “That’s what enables you to get the most out of every week of training.”
Wanting to be the best isn’t just about training hard, though; it’s also about developing a steadfast belief in yourself and your capabilities. “My high school coach [Mike McCabe] was amazing, and he helped instill in me this confidence that I could be an Olympian,” said McLaughlin (reminder: she qualified for Rio as a high school junior). “You don’t always see your own potential. But I really feel like he saw that in me, even when I didn’t see it in myself.”
Between her dedication to training and her faith in herself, McLaughlin is setting herself up for success at the World Athletics Championships this July. “I get really excited, and I’m ready to go for it, but I’m trying not to get ahead of myself and give myself that time to prepare,” she said. “But everything I do is about working toward the next goal.”