Less than a month ago, 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin was like any other high school athlete, albeit a very accomplished one. The rising senior track runner at Union Catholic High School in New Jersey hasn't lost a high school race since she was 14 years old, and the times she has posted have been fast enough to qualify her for a spot in the 400m hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. There, she posted a 54.15 finish time in the 400m finals—good for third place and a spot on the Olympic team.
"I woke up the day after the race and I was an Olympian. It was kinda crazy," McLaughlin said. "I mean, it's been a dream of mine since I was 6, and now I'm 16 and here I am. It's real."
STACK spoke with McLaughlin shortly after she was named Gatorade Athlete of the Year, an honor bestowed on the person the sponsors considered the best female athlete in the country. The award is based on athletic performance, academics (McLaughlin reportedly carries a 3.55 GPA at Union Catholic), and community service (she's worked on behalf of the Red Cross and volunteered to help in recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy).
The preternaturally poised track star told us how she's been defying expectations since a very early age. "I was the biggest tomboy growing up. And I was told that I couldn't race with the boys. We would race during elementary school and middle school, and they were like, 'no, you can't hang with us.' And I did. I beat them, and they stopped talking," McLaughlin said.
Now that McLaughlin has made the Olympic team, she says the pressure is off. She's already achieved what she set out to achieve. Anything she does from here will be icing on the cake.
"I don't have any expectations [about Rio], for real," McLaughlin says. "My goal was to make the team—to get out there at the trials and compete with the best women in America and see how I do. And I did that. Now that I get to go, it's going to be races. It's going to be what I've been doing for the past seven months. This is just another race. It's about the experience. You know, I'm 16 and have many more years to go back and do it again. So I think having the most fun, getting to enjoy it and not stress is going to be my main focus."
You can hear McLaughlin tell the story of her journey in the video above.
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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock