TOKYO — When last seen, at the U.S. track and field Trials in Eugene in June, and this was at the Best Western just a couple blocks from the new Hayward Field, and can we be honest, they’ve cut back on daily housekeeping so not exactly the lap of luxury, Bobby Kersee was in the laundry room, doing a load of white towels for the athletes in his charge.
Let’s replay that. Bobby Kersee. The legendary coach of, among others, his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Dawn Harper, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, Gall Devers, Greg Foster, Shawn Crawford, Kerron Clement, Joanna Hayes, Allyson Felix and, now, Sydney McLaughlin. In the laundry room. At the Best Western.
This sort of dedication to craft, still, after all these years, is precisely why last year — in June of 2020 — McLaughlin, who was on the verge of something special, moved into the Kersee camp, and on Wednesday special happened, McLaughlin racing to gold in the most incredible, instantly memorable women’s 400-meter hurdle race in Olympic history.
“Working with Bobby,” McLaughlin would say afterward, “has taught me about my event … and how it’s best for me to run it,” adding a moment later, “He and I have both learned things about what’s possible.”
Asked the obvious question — what’s possible — she answered, “In terms of what’s possible, it’s completely limitless.”
Between the super-shoes, the springy track and athletes bursting to run after waiting for a year, these Tokyo Games have produced exceptional moments. Especially in the men’s and women’s 400 hurdles -- for long a sort-of afterthought but now the marquee event of a new generation.
McLaughlin, 21, finished in 51.46 seconds, breaking the world record she had set in June, 51.9, at those Trials. Dalilah Muhammad, the 2016 gold medalist and 2019 world champion, ran a personal-best 51.58. Femke Bol of Holland took third, in a European record 52.03.
Pausing here for a moment for some quick math, and track geek fun:
The 44-hundredths that McLaughlin sliced off her world record is the biggest cut in the mark since 1984.
Officials in Tokyo said McLaughlin’s medal made for the 1,000th medal ever awarded in track and field at the Olympics. This may or may not be the case — given some shuffling around amid doping-related matters tied to prior Games — but in the telling of the matter in the years going ahead, the McLaughin gold almost surely will come to be known as Golden Medal 1K.
Bol’s bronze made for the second track medal for Holland. The last time the Netherlands won more than one medal in track and field at an Olympics? 1948.
Bol, 21, said she started running when she was 7, took up the 400 at 15 and the hurdles only two years ago. “But,” she said with a giggle, “I love the hurdles the most.”
For the second day in a row in Tokyo, meanwhile, the two top finishers in the Olympic 400 hurdles demolished the world record — and the third-place finisher would have been under the world record as of just six weeks ago.
On Tuesday, Norway’s Karsten Warholm dropped the world record in the men’s 400 hurdles to 45.94. Rai Benjamin of the United States also ran under the prior world record in finishing second, in 46.17.
Warholm ripped his shirt open in exuberant joy. McLaughlin? Uh, no. “Karsten is a very animated person,” she said with a smile. “I'm a little more calm.”
The finish of Wednesday’s women’s 400 can be traced directly to the women’s 400 hurdles final at the Doha 2019 world championship. There the order was reversed: Muhammad 1, McLaughlin 2.
Two months earlier, at the U.S. championships, Muhammad had set a world record, 52.2. There in Des Moines, McLaughlin finished 68-hundredths behind.
On that night in Doha, in Lane Six, Muhammad ran 52.16 for gold, another world record. McLaughlin, in Lane Four, ran the No. 3 time in history, 52.23, just seven-hundredths back, clearly closing the gap, for second.
What cost McLaughlin: at the eighth hurdle, she “kind of stuttered a little bit,” which slowed her just enough.
That hiccup, she said Wednesday, was neither a physical nor tactical problem. It was mental.
“I think,” she said, “that race for me was just kind of one of those moments where there was something more you could do, and you didn’t. The idea of knowing there was more in me — that hurt.
“I learned from that, and took those fears that were stopping me at that eighth hurdle and got rid of it and pushed forward to ultimately get to where I am now.”
What did she have to push through, exactly? “The fear of something that hasn’t happened yet ... just making sure your thoughts are positive … to make them happen in reality.”
To take that final step, a year ago she switched coaches, from Hayes — herself a gold medalist in the sprint hurdles in Athens in 2004 — to Kersee. The year delay in the Games completely worked to McLaughlin’s advantage — she and Kersee had time to develop not only their relationship but her race strategies.
Which, incredibly, she had never had before.
“I realized,” McLaughlin said, “that Bobby was a really great person before he was a really great coach. He saw things in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself. This being his 11th Olympics, his knowledge was really through the roof.”
Kersee is not just adept at laundry. “I knew,” she added, “he was a man of numbers. So I knew he was going to be able to get me where I needed to go.”
Before training with Kersee, McLaughlin said, she ran her races pretty much on instinct. Now, she said, each race has a plan.
At the Trials in June, McLaughlin’s 51.9 put her 52-hundredths ahead of Muhammad.
The plan Wednesday, McLaughlin said, played itself out as expected.
Muhammad was out fastest. She held a slight lead through the seventh hurdle. There McLaughlin started to draw even. At the ninth hurdle, McLaughlin “had to make a little bit of a chop.” At the 10th, it was clear Muhammad was slightly ahead. But McLaughlin has always had ferocious closing speed, and simply outsprinted Muhammad to the line.
The two of them have asserted, and repeatedly, that they have made each other better — that any “rivalry” is simply noise.
“A lot of it comes from social media,” McLaughlin said. “A lot comes from outside things you can’t control.”
She added, “People can post whatever they want about us. We’re just two great athletes pushing each other to be our best and represent the same great country.”
“I think in general,” Muhammad said, “we need to celebrate all the accomplishments, all the accomplishments we make within yourself. To be here 1-2-3 … I’m really proud of that. No mixed emotions here today.
“I’m super happy today,” she said, “and this is not the last race of my career.”
For Sydney McLaughlin, as she well understands, it’s all just getting started. She has been in the spotlight for five years, ever since making the Olympic team in 2016 as a 16-year-old. But now, as a gold medalist, it’s going to be an entirely different level.
She and Kersee are going to have plenty more to talk about. Maybe while he moves the towels over to the dryer.
“I just want to set a good example,” McLaughlin said, “and encourage people to be the best they can be.”