With all the coverage of third-place hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s disrespectful national anthem stunt, you may have missed another bit of Olympic news that happened the next day: American track and field athlete Sydney McLaughlin smashed the world record in the 400-meter hurdles at 51.9 seconds.
McLaughlin isn’t just praiseworthy because she’s good. She also seems to be heading to the Olympics with all the right priorities, using the competition as a chance to glorify God and honor her country instead of a means to cheap self-ingratiating publicity.
The Dunellen, New Jersey native gets her love of track from both parents, Willie and Mary McLaughlin. After she began running at age six, she set a national high school freshman record at 14 at the USA Track and Field Junior National Championships. Two years later, 16-year-old McLaughlin earned third in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials, earning her a spot in the American delegation to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I was just there to do my best and represent New Jersey, my family, and my country the best I could,” McLaughlin said of her Olympic debut. She also emphasized how grateful she was for the opportunity to participate. “Being able to just get that firsthand experience so young, I really am grateful for it because it just shaped how I looked at things, moving forward, and just my mindset going into big events like that,” she told People Magazine. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
The youngest track athlete to represent the United States at the Olympics in almost 50 years, McLaughlin finished fifth in her 2016 semifinal. After the Rio games, she returned home to complete her senior year at Union Catholic Regional High School, and then put a professional career on the backburner to attend college at the University of Kentucky. “I wanted the experience of being a college kid,” McLaughlin said, “to get experiences to mature as a person and in the sport.”
Now, five years after Rio, she’s heading back to the Olympics — this time in Tokyo — after breaking the 400-meter hurdles record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. And she gives the credit to God.
“I think the biggest difference this year is my faith, trusting God and trusting that process, and knowing that He’s in control of everything,” she said. “As long as I put the hard work in, He’s going to carry me through. And I really cannot do anything more but give the glory to Him at this point.”
After her world record last week, McLaughlin noted on Instagram: “I no longer run for self-recognition, but to reflect His perfect will that is already set in stone. I don’t deserve anything. But by grace, through faith, Jesus has given me everything. Records come and go. The glory of God is eternal.”
She also uses her Instagram account to share scriptural encouragement as well as her personal testimony. “It’s not me, it’s literally Christ inside of me,” she shared in an in-depth eight-minute video from February. “The goal of my life is to glorify him in everything that I do and to be more like him every single day when I wake up.”
In the video, she also read Colossians 3:1-10 to her followers, explaining the gospel and opening up about her personal relationship with Christ.
“Nobody owes me anything, I have everything that I need in Christ,” she said. “Nothing else matters — the things of this world, social media, drama, it doesn’t matter anymore … You can only understand your purpose in life and who you are, in Christ.”
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In an interview with L’Officiel, she noted why it’s important not to compare her own struggles and successes to those of others. “Once the gun goes off, there’s not a lot of time to think, just react … sometimes I can hear the footsteps of the other runners, but for the most part, I’m focused on my lane,” she said.
“If you’re fixated on the person next to you, you’re not keeping your eyes on the hurdles in your lane, and I think the key to having your own successful career is focusing on your own success. Look at what’s in front of you, because everyone’s journeys are different.”
She’s carried that humble attitude into conversations where she’s been pushed to comment on race relations in America. In a panel with other female athletes for E! Online, she noted the importance of each person using his or her platform for good, but added, “everyone has a platform.”
While others on the panel like Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez talked about the “major privilege” of having a lighter skin color and criticized American society as racist, McLaughlin refrained from disparaging the country she represents. She also used a question about women’s representation in sports to highlight athletes who are moms, rather than push identity-politics narratives.
McLaughlin seems to be approaching the opportunity to represent her country as the exciting honor it is. She’s the kind of athlete who’s fun to cheer for because she sees success as a challenge, not an entitlement.
In the winner’s spotlight, she exudes humility and gratitude: rare virtues anywhere and especially in an industry built on competition, pressure, and gold medals. You can bet I’ll be cheering harder for athletes like Sydney McLaughlin than for anyone who wants to use her Olympic platform to disparage the greatest nation on Earth.