Kentucky track and field coach Edrick Floreal never likes to come into the NCAA Championships with a target on his team’s back.
But for one of his athletes, expectations, internal and external, are sky high. At 18 years old, Sydney McLaughlin has already been an Olympian, part of a world record medley relay, and she set the NCAA record this spring in the 400-meter hurdles (52.75 seconds) in only her third run at it as a collegian.
McLaughlin qualified for the 2016 Olympics at Eugene, Oregon's famed Heyward Field, site of this week’s NCAA Championships, as a high-schooler.
“I’m just excited to be back there,” McClaughlin said. “It’s a really fast track. I’ve run some of my best races there, so we’ll see what happens.”
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Hailed as a “one-and-done” talent by her coach, McLaughlin hasn’t indicated whether this week will be her last appearance as a Wildcat, but she credits Floreal for her growth on and off the track.
“It’s been better than I thought,” McLaughlin said of her freshman experience. “We did try to do short hurdles. I think that is an event that just takes more time. Technique-wise, we just didn’t have the time this year.”
While honing McLaughlin’s technique in the 400-meter hurdles, Floreal has tried to keep the pressure off McLaughlin by keeping her busy in other events. She ran NCAA qualifying times in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes at various points in the outdoor season.
“I’ve moved her around so much, it’s become like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ game trying to find Sydney,” Floreal said.
But once she set the 400-meter hurdles collegiate record (52.75) at the SEC Championships last month, it became clear that would be her focus at the NCAAs.
“She knows and she recognizes what’s at stake … ,” Floreal said of McLaughlin, who will likely also run a leg in UK’s 4-by-400 relay. “If you’re going to be a one-and-done, you’re going to have to learn to live with that pressure.”
Ranked as the No. 4 women’s team with what he feels is a squad strong enough to win it all and the No. 13 men’s team with a great shot of breaking into the top 10, Floreal has the field right where he wants them.
"The expectations are not based on what other people think about us. The expectations are based on what we think about ourselves and what we can do as a team,” Floreal said. “I like being fourth for sure with a really good chance to win. … If we can make top 10 on the men’s side, I’d be happy as a clam."
Now it’s up to him to get all his athletes to relax and perform.
“This time of year when you’re going to a championship, everybody’s on edge and you’ve got things to adjust, you’ve got tweaks and things that make a difference between breaking a collegiate record and not making the finals. Those little tweaks are not as physical as they are mental, nerves, things like that.”
Experience will help. UK brings a former NCAA champion in the 100-meter hurdles in Jasmine Camacho-Quinn. It also boasts the defending outdoor champion in the pole vault in Olivia Gruver.
“It doesn’t change anything for me,” Gruver said of being the defending champ. “I’m still going to go in there like I’m on the bottom and I’m going to try to get on the top. It’s great to go in there knowing I can get back on top and defend my title again.”
Tim Duckworth comes in as the No. 1-ranked decathlete and NCAA indoor heptathlon champion. Despite a mistake that ruined the event for him last year, the rest of the event was a huge confidence builder for this season.
“That was the real kick that I needed,” Duckworth said of being on pace for a personal best in last year’s NCAAs. “It fell apart on the last event, but it made me realize that I can go up there and compete with the best.”
Kentucky will be sending 10 women and nine men to Eugene, the most male athletes in Floreal’s tenure.
“I feel good about the potential and the talent. I feel good about the training,” Floreal said. “I think we’ve just got to take a deep breath and kind get ourselves together and embrace the challenge.”
NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships
When: Wednesday through Saturday
Where: Heyward Field in Eugene, Ore.
Wednesday's TV: ESPNU (7:30 p.m.)
Defending team champions: Florida (men) and Oregon (women)