It may have looked easy. According to Sydney McLaughlin, it wasn’t easy.
Not at all.
After becoming the youngest U.S. track Olympian in 48 years, McLaughlin revealed that she faced a real crisis of confidence during her week at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene.
“I think the first day was definitely the hardest — coming up here, just the Trials, coming up here for the first time and running on this track, in this type of competition,” she said.
“As the rounds went on it definitely got easier to manage the nerves and get used to the field, but it’s a lot of mental preparation, and just keeping the negative thoughts out and trusting in the ability of what you’ve done so far. My coach had a lot to do with that.
“I had a mental breakdown my first day, and without them I wouldn’t have stepped on the line.”
McLaughlin, 16 and a rising senior at Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, Union County, turned in one of the most remarkable performances in U.S. track history Sunday when she made the U.S. Olympic team in the 400-meter hurdles a few weeks before her 17th birthday.
McLaughlin placed third in 54.14, breaking the world junior record and her own high school national record.
She didn’t just overcome some of the greatest intermediate hurdlers in the country, she overcame nagging self-doubt that’s understandable for any 16-year-old in this environment.
“It was me doubting everything I’d done so far this season, not understanding that I’ve worked to get where I am and that I deserved to be here,” she said.
“And just thinking, ‘I’m 16 and these girls are all professionals.’ I definitely had a moment where I didn’t think I could do it, and they told me ‘You’re getting on the line and running this race,’ that put me where I am today.”
Delilah Muhammad won the race in 52.88, a U.S. Olympic Trials record and the No. 14 time in world history. Ashley Spencer was second in 54.02, with McLaughlin a step behind her.
Muhammad, asked what she was doing when she was 16, said this: “I was a junior in high school. I just won world youth that year, but I ran 57 seconds, not 54.”
McLaughlin’s reaction time to the gun was .371 compared to Spencer’s .228, so McLaughlin was actually second-fastest from line to line.
“She is a beast,” said former NCAA and U.S. champion Kori Carter, who finished fourth in 54.47. “She’s the truth. I was in every single heat with her and she carries herself like a pro and I know she will represent the USA amazingly.
Asked what she was thinking about during the race, McLaughlin was typically funny.
“’I can’t believe this is happening right now,'” McLaughlin said. “I just get this out of the way. It’s been a very long year, and the Trials is stressful. My mind was on finishing the race and eating a cheeseburger.”
The previous youngest American to make the team in the 400 intermediates was Lashinda Demus, who was 21 years old when she made the team in 2004.
McLaughlin is five years younger.
The last 16-year-old to make the team in any event was Rhonda Brady in the high hurdles in 1976, but she was 21 years old and 347 days. McLaughlin is 16 years old and 337 days.
That makes McLaughlin the youngest U.S. track Olympian since high jumper Sharon Callahan in 1968. Callahan was 16 years old, 153 days, when she won the Trials at 5-7 1/4 – a height that wouldn’t win a major high school meet these days.
“Just hearing the word Olympics was a dream in the back of my mind,” McLaughlin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to the Trials.’
“But it’s not going to happen. It was never really on my radar, until ran 54. My season started off really rough with some injuries and some personal issues. It wasn’t looking good. But every Olympic athlete has two or three major struggles their Olympic year, and I definitely faced mine.”
McLaughlin’s time is No. 4 in the world this year and makes her the 11th-fastest performer in Olympic Trials history. Her time is second-fastest ever by a third-place finisher at the Trials:
52.88 … Delilah Muhammad, 2016 
52.95 … Sheena Johnson, 2004 
53.33 … Sandra Glover, 2000 
53.36 … Brenda Taylor, 2004 
53.43 … Lashinda Demus, 2004 
53.62 … Sandra Farmer-Patrick, 1992 
53.81 … Kim Batten, 1996 
53.92 … Tonja Buford-Bailey, 1992 
54.02 … Ashley Spencer, 2016 
54.03 … Tiffany Ross-Williams, 2008 
54.15 … Sydney McLaughlin, 2016 
54.16 … Raisin McIntosh, 2004 
54.33 … Georgeanne Moline, 2012 
54.42 … Shauna Smith, 2004 
54.47 … Kori Carter, 2016 
54.60 … Queen Harrison, 2008 
54.60 … Cassandra Tate, 2016 
54.62 … Sheena Tosta, 2008 
54.65 … Autumne Franklin, 2016 
54.80 … Janeene Vickers, 1992 
54.81 … T’Erea Brown, 2012 
“This has to be the icing on the cake,” she said. “Regardless of what happens in Rio, I made it here and I’m just so thankful for all of that.”
McLaughlin’s dad, Willie, ran 20.9 for 200 meters for East Orange High in 1981. Some 25 years later, his daughter began her track career.
“It was AAU track,” she said. “I was 6 years old, and my dad said that if I won I would get a chocolate bar with almonds. So I won the race and I got a chocolate bar, and ever since I kept running so I could get chocolate bars.”