The Sydney Project: how athletic excellence traps McLaughlin but also sets her free

It’s 2022. Sydney McLaughlin is 22. She crosses the line and sits down on the track. There are no wild celebrations or overt displays of emotion. Maybe she’s simply stunned at the fact that she’s just run a world 400m hurdles final in a time that would have earned seventh place in the final of the 400m flat. Maybe she’s reflecting on the mathematical improbability of lowering the world record from 52.16 to 50.68 in the space of 13 months. Maybe she’s just thinking about the lactic acid still burning inside her legs.

At the press conference, the focus is not on what she has just achieved but what she might yet achieve. More world records? The 50-second barrier? A switch of events? The world has seen a miracle, and all it wants to know about is her next trick. “The sky’s the limit, for sure,” she says. “I need to ask my coach about our next goal. He calls the shots.” She doesn’t say what she wants for herself.

McLaughlin looks compact, reserved, constrained. They call her a robot, a machine. They roll their eyes when she talks about her faith and dedicates her triumphs to the glory of God. And you remember an interview she gave a long time ago, when she was still a teenager, still a schoolgirl, the point at which her inner and outer worlds were beginning to collapse in on each other. “Whenever I got frustrated,” she said, “I’d go to practice and run it out. Get the stress out on the track. I make it look easier than it is. People don’t see the struggle.”

It’s 2016. Sydney is 16. From the moment she could run, running was the fate chosen for her. Her parents were star athletes. So were her brother and sister. She was sent to Union Catholic, where the school fees are $18,000 a year and the expectations are stratospheric. She broke school records and state records, won a place at the prestigious US trials. Now, as she paces gingerly around the warm-up track, something stops her. She doesn’t want to run. She’s having a panic attack. She wants to go home. “I don’t want to do this,” she pleads with her coaches. “I don’t belong here.”

Earlier in the year, Sydney had fallen ill with mononucleosis and missed the first six weeks of the season. In April, her mother Mary suffered a heart attack. She worried about what athletics was doing to her social life, that it was becoming less of a hobby and more of a job. And as she crosses the line in third place, having been persuaded to run by her father, all she can feel is relief that it it’s all over and fear at what is to come. Afterwards, a reporter asks about her future plans. “Sleep,” she says. “And sleep again.”

It’s 2021. Sydney is 21. Three days ago she broke the world record at the Olympic trials. Now she’s sitting in her car, outside the shops, trying to fight back tears. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says into her phone camera. “I achieved one of my life’s dreams. And the people who I thought would be most excited didn’t even care.” The rolling tears collect into sobs. “You can do everything right, and it’ll never be enough. There’s always a problem with you.” She pushes her hair out of her face. “It’s a sick world,” she spits into the lens, partly in disdain, partly in despair.

It’s 2006. Sydney is six. She’s about to run the 100 metre dash for the first time. Her father Willie tells her that she can have an almond chocolate bar if she wins. She wins. Afterwards she feels emptied, unsatisfied, unsure what the point of it all was. Then her father hands her the chocolate bar. She swirls and crunches the sweet nutty candy around her mouth, and decides there and then to carry on running. The chocolate disappears down her throat, never to be tasted again.

The thing that traps you also sets you free. The thing that sets you free also traps you. The path that led Sydney to the start line at Eugene was not entirely of her choosing. Her talent she owes to God. Her athletic genes she owes to her parents. Her technique and consistency she owes to her coaches. Her career and mission she owes to all of them. This is what she wants. This is what makes her happy. But she knows too that she is a project, a plan, a figment of the ambition of others. So she runs. She runs faster and more perfectly than anyone who has ever run before her.

It’s 2022. Sydney is 22. This is the most brutal of all the sprint events, a quarter of a mile of pure pain, where every step is a potential disaster. Femke Bol’s blond ponytail flaps against her back. Dalilah Muhammad’s hair dances and weaves in the wind. But Sydney’s hair is trussed so tightly that not a single strand falls out of place.

This is what she knows. This is what she does. The hurdles disappear smoothly under her. Bol and Muhammad are nowhere to be seen. The crowd are already loosening their jaws in disbelief. And yet as she nears the tape she seems to slow a little. She’s won, but there’s a reluctance. It’s almost as if she can see the thing she was running from, right there, waiting for her exactly where she started.