EUGENE, Ore. — For years, Edwin Moses collected so many 400-meter hurdle victories that he turned the event into essentially two races: the rest of the field against each other, for second place … and Moses vs. himself. His longest win-streak—122-consecutive races, 107-straight finals—will never be approached, let alone broken. But one man, an elite track coach who’s still coaching, wanted more than anyone to find someone to stop it.
This coach was Bob Kersee, and Moses did not just sense Kersee studying him, up close, all over the world. Kersee told him that, straight up. He asked Moses for training tips, lingering near him at tracks. And, because this particular event requires technical proficiency above all, Kersee engaged Moses in discussions about the technique Moses had developed on his own.
“I will find someone that beats you,” Kersee promised. “I don’t care how long it takes.”
The mission, Moses calls it, as he begins to list names of hurdlers most have long ago forgotten. There might have been 10 challengers trained by Kersee, maybe 15. Moses, who competed in the 1970s and ’80s, isn’t exactly sure. He knows they studied him, using his races as a training tool. He says that they believed a victory over him, especially the streak-breaker, would be more significant than Olympic gold. But he carried with him a gladiator ethos. He would beat them. All of them. “That’s what a gladiator does,” he says.
On the phone from Atlanta, Moses laughs but not at his old mindset. He laughs because of what happened here, in Eugene, the night before he flew back home. There’s a warm-up area right next to the stadium, and he stood there, watching Sydney McLaughlin, herself a star American hurdler and best in this event since, well, since him.
Moses noticed how McLaughlin stood by herself, and he marveled at her gladiator-like gaze. She looked straight ahead, as if daydreaming, not focused but more like in a trance. He saddled up to McLaughlin’s coach. Who else? Kersee, of course.
“Your girl’s running good,” Moses said.
Kersee laughed a knowing laugh, setting up the most full-circle of punchlines. “Well,” he said, “I’ve been trying to beat you long enough that I should know what I’m doing.”
Flash forward 48 hours. Friday evening. Hayward Field.
McLaughlin, having just completed her final, sat on the track. She breathed in deeply, trying to close the air deficit in her lungs. She sort-of smiled, apparently too exhausted to go full grin. Shade had cooled the stadium significantly, but she looked like she wanted an ice bath.
As she sat there, not moving, trying to smile, the crowd showered her with a standing ovation. Every seat was empty; every person who had been sitting was now up. McLaughlin shook her head, leaned forward and placed both arms over her legs for support. An eager official approached with her gold medal, and, rather than rise, she stayed down, as the official placed it lovingly around her neck.
Still gasping for air, McLaughlin did rise, finally, after a minute or two. She walked over to the clock that displayed her time, bent down and posed for photos. Then she sat again, taking deep breath after deep breath.
Last month, at the U.S. qualifying races for the world championships, inside the same stadium, on the same track, she had broken her own world record.
That night: 51.41 seconds.
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This night: 50.68 seconds.
In 30 days, McLaughlin had dropped her world record time by an unheard of, holy pancakes, did-that-just-really-happen .73 seconds. Until 2019, no woman hurdler had run faster than 52.34. In the three years since, two Americans—McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad—have topped that mark six times. But never before like Friday. Never before like that.
Everyone else could try and process what they had just seen. Good luck with that. On NBC, retired sprinter turned commentator Ato Boldon called it the most incredible track performance he’d ever seen. Others cited Bob Beamon’s iconic long jump at the 1968 Olympics, Usain Bolt’s sprint toward history in Beijing, or the world records set by the late Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 that still stand, more than 30 years later. What McLaughlin did on Friday night at Hayward Field was that extraordinary, that unusual.
“It’s superior to almost everything, maybe everything, in track and field,” Moses said afterward. “Because you have a lot of men that can’t even run a 50.6 with no hurdles.”
McLaughlin didn’t have time for any of that, the history and her place in it, in the immediate aftermath. She had done more than take away an international audience’s collective breath.
She had also taken away her own.
Most track experts who watched a young Sydney McLaughlin run in circles also saw her running circles around her older opposition. Greatness became her expectation. Prodigy, they called her, and while true, the description still read a little flat.
McLaughlin grew up in New Jersey and made the Olympic team for Rio 2016 at age 16, the youngest member for track and field in 44 years. She didn’t make the final, and that qualified as newsworthy, and the combination spoke to the expectations that seemed to heighten after every race. Gatorade named her its high school athlete of the year. Twice. Then she went to Kentucky, raced for one season and turned pro in 2018.
Even then, marked for world domination before she could legally drink, McLaughlin and her circle knew one cold and unassailable truth. Phenoms fail all the time, for a variety of reasons. They get injured, warped by celebrity, or distracted; a better phenom comes along, ensuring they break world records while finishing in second place; they try another event, or shift to another sport. The work, in other words, wasn’t close to done.
During the pandemic, McLaughlin decided to switch coaches. She chose Kersee, making him her fourth hurdles yogi in five years. Why she chose him, according to people who know both her and Kersee, was important. Kersee told her she didn’t need to focus on speed training so much as she needed to improve her technical proficiency, her overall efficiency and her mental fortitude to handle the demands he expected would result from all she would achieve.
Kersee, after all, had spent all those years studying Moses, who had fashioned himself into a hurdle God by absorbing the event, shaping his own regimen and testing out his findings. This, Moses says, embedded his style and technical mastery deep within. It would be difficult to teach, unless the person teaching had undergone the same process. Thing is, Kersee kind of had.
To run like Moses, like McLaughlin, hurdlers needed to first understand the math involved. The movements they took to triumph were dynamic, multiple, and that meant there were dozens of ways in which they could screw up. That might be clipping a hurdle at top speed, messing with their stride pattern. Or it could be jumping too high, losing precious fractions of seconds while falling back to earth. They might lose their balance, run out of energy, trip. Wasted motion meant wasted energy.
Efficiency was key. Moses studied the biomechanics of slowing down, in order to avoid that. He counted 31 ways that races could go wrong. At the start, for instance; on each turn; and with each hurdle, both on jumping and landing. “Bad stuff” can happen. It often did.
He wanted to remove the psychological pressure by focusing on the science, his steps and his timing, the same process McLaughlin embarked on in 2020. “Crazy people run this race,” Moses says, citing the combination of pure speed, different movements and strategy. “Why would anyone want to do that time and time again?”
When Kersee started training McLaughlin, he told her to “run like a man.” Now that might sound worse than he meant it, because he wasn’t referring to her gender as much as to her steps. For most of the women’s 400-meter hurdles’ existence, elite athletes took 15 strides before they leapt. Most male competitors took 14. That’s what Kersee meant. Changing the number of strides between hurdles also meant changing the foot she jumped off, just as Moses had done after suffering an injury in his career. “Bobby is a mathematician,” says Al Joyner, his brother-in-law, who’s also a gold medalist and track coach. “And Sydney mastered his technique.”
Moses recalls that Kersee endured a fair amount of criticism for McLaughlin 2.0. He also understood why. “Most athletes, probably nine out of 10 world-class competitors, would fail,” he says. “Because it’s so unusual. Imagine sitting down and trying to write with your other hand. You may have a desire to do it. But your brain may not let it happen.”
Sometimes, when Kersee returned home after training sessions, his wife saw his mind spinning, as if in perpetual overdrive. He knew what he had in McLaughlin, sensing greatness beyond even gold medals. He didn’t share technical details with his wife, and Al’s sister, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, but as one of the greatest-ever women athletes, she understood McLaughlin’s ceiling: becoming the face of U.S. track and field.
Joyner-Kersee believes her husband is “one of the most underrated coaches” in his sport. The numbers don’t hurt her assertion. From 1984 to 2020, he coached at least one gold medal-winning athlete, and that’s just in the Olympics. But his mission, to beat Moses, meant he still wanted more.
Al Joyner sometimes jokes with his brother-in-law that McLaughlin could line up alongside regular, old 400-meter runners and compete against them, while hurdling, and maybe even win. To his point, her world record-time on Friday was better than what two of the 400-meter finalists turned in. “That’s the difference,” Joyner says. “She’s running against the clock, man. Nobody else is running against the clock.”
Moses doesn’t disagree. “There’s never been a weapon as strong as she is,” he says. “And Bobby’s been waiting for this opportunity his whole life. You know, she was already elite. But he’s created a monster with that girl.”
So here they were, Kersee and McLaughlin, the coach and the prodigy no more, back in Eugene, back at Hayward Field, back in the same race, against the same rival, Muhammad. But everything was different, and it seemed like everyone who knew could tell.
Muhammad had broken the world record first, at nationals in 2019, and she broke her own mark three months later, while winning gold in Rio. Every year after that, though, McLaughlin closed the gap between them. It’s funny how evolution works, how their evolution worked. McLaughlin wasn’t close to being born when the first hurdler set the first world record, breaking 57 seconds. Four years later, someone broke 56. Three years after that, down went 55. But it took 10 more years to break 54 seconds and 12 additional years for someone else to break 53.
No one broke 52 until McLaughlin did, in June of 2021, at—where else?— Hayward Field.
Their rivalry shifted right then, becoming more one-sided by the meet. It may have ended—Muhammad is 32 and slowing; McLaughlin is 22 getting faster by the month—in one blur on Friday night.
McLaughlin expanded what might be possible in her event. She started in Lane 5, face blank, almost angry. When the gun sounded, she ended the race almost as soon as everyone shot from the blocks. By the first turn, despite being inside of Muhammad, McLaughlin already appeared to be ahead. By the final turn, a semi-truck could have fit between her and her nearest competitor. She could have stopped, started again and still won with ease. Unreal, she called it, after she caught her breath. But real, it was.
Afterward, the person who seemed the least impressed with McLaughlin was … McLaughlin. She said there was “always more to improve on” and promised to continue to push the boundaries in her sport. She mentioned that she has already discussed with her team the possibility that she will compete in future world competitions in other events, like the 400 meters, sans hurdles. She even admitted that during her romp through the 400-meter hurdles she could feel the lactic acid in her legs. But she had already entered what she called a “flow state.”
Would that translate into superstardom? Moses wasn’t sure. “[Kersee] has [McLaughlin] fired up like [Drew] Bundini Brown had Ali stoked,” he says. Joyner-Kersee believes McLaughlin is ready for what’s next, for all of it. “She can definitely crossover,” she says. “She can be that big.”
“She’s gonna be like FloJo,” Joyner says, comparing McLaughlin to his late and legendary wife. “Sydney will do for women’s hurdles what FloJo did for the sprints.”
Heavy stuff. Perhaps all should take a cue from McLaughlin and take a series of deep breaths. But that wasn’t easy, not with McLaughlin, not after Friday night.
“Anything is possible,” McLaughlin said, and, in this context, the cliché held a newer, deeper, more resonant meaning. After all, she had just proven it.