Last updated 8/2/2022 at Noon
The first time I saw Sydney McLaughlin compete, she was about to start her senior year of high school as a 16 year old. I was covering the 2016 Olympic Trials at historic Hayward Field and wondered if this teenage phenom was for real. She had established herself as an up-and-coming track star in the 400-meter hurdles.
The question on everyone’s mind was: Can this whippersnapper possibly make the Olympics by placing in the top three at the Trials?
The answer turned out to be yes, and I was lucky enough to have snapped a photo of the young star as she did a victory lap around lane eight where she could reach up and high five fans in the wooden east stands of the old Hayward Field.
Fast-forward to the present day (no pun intended) and the 22-year-old has proven to not be just a flash in the pan. She won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo last year and broke the world record earlier this summer.
All eyes fixed upon the newly married hurdler last week as she stepped into the blocks in lane four for the 400-meter hurdles final at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, July 22, with three of her American teammates and four of the other best hurdlers in the world.
Her performances over the past year have been so dominant the crowd understood that only a false start or a clipped hurdle would keep her from being the 2022 world champion.
With the world watching, could McLaughlin, who hails from Dunellen, New Jersey, break her own world record?
Having a media credential allowed me, a track and field fanatic, to move around fairly freely in the stands throughout the week, but on this evening the stadium was packed and everyone wanted to be as close to the finish line as possible. I managed to work my way into position to attempt a decent picture and noticed a young woman standing in front of me on a landing right above the finish line. A bouquet of flowers rested near her feet and her attention was focused directly at the track below.
I asked, “So, I assume the flowers are from someone in the race.”
She answered excitedly, “I was one of the bridesmaids at Sydney’s wedding this spring. I just got to Eugene today and she doesn’t know I am here, so I can’t wait to surprise her after the race. I’ve never seen her compete in person.”
The woman told me how Sydney came to a bible study she led and how the two had become friends and that McLaughlin’s future husband, a former NFL player named Andre Levone, also attended.
A few minutes later and McLaughlin was indeed the world champion and had run a nearly unbelievable time of 50.68 seconds, breaking her own world record by .8 seconds. For perspective, the winner of the open 400 ran 49.11 without hurdles.
McLaughlin’s performance — she also ran the fastest leg of the gold medal 4x400 meter relay for the U.S. — was among my favorite memories from the meet.
A good number of fans from Sisters Country also attended the meet including Aimee and Tate Metcalf.
Aimee said, “It was so exciting to meet people from all over the world,” said Aimee. “They all shared how impressed they were with the facilities and how much fun they were having exploring Oregon. We really did introduce our beautiful state to a global audience.”
Her husband added, “I’ve been fortunate enough to see thrilling world-class track competitions around the world, including the Olympics and World Championships from London to Beijing to Rio. To witness a competition of this level in Eugene, two hours from our home, was a gift.”
John Peckham, a 2021 graduate of Sisters High who runs for the University of Alaska-Anchorage said, “It was incredible to not just see the best athletes in the U.S., but rather the best athletes in the world all in one place. When walking to my seats I recognized many professional athletes wearing their country’s gear. You would never expect to walk past an Ethiopian distance runner like Selemon Barega in Oregon.”
Peckham’s girlfriend Nell Baker said, “My favorite part of the World Championships was seeing people from all over the world come to Eugene, Oregon, to celebrate track and field. It was so cool to see world-class athletes in a semi-small community in Oregon.”
Sam May, a teammate of Peckham’s from high school who will run for George Fox University this year, attended the final day of competition.
He said, “Witnessing world records be shattered always puts you as a part of history; being able to say ‘I was there!’ Mondo Duplantis’s successful attempt in the pole vault to break his own world record was electrifying throughout the packed stands.”
High school senior Hayden Roth attended with May and said, “As a runner this was a truly special experience for me. Never in my life did I think I would witness three world records broken in a single day.”
The experience of being surrounded by athletes and fans from all over the world is one I will never forget. And seeing many of my friends be exposed to an Olympic-level event made it all the sweeter.