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UK track phenom off stride in her home debut, but best is yet to come

Kentucky’s Sydney McLaughlin ran in the final leg of the women’s 4x400-meter relay during Day 2 of the Kentucky Invitational at Nutter Field House on Saturday.
Kentucky’s Sydney McLaughlin ran in the final leg of the women’s 4x400-meter relay during Day 2 of the Kentucky Invitational at Nutter Field House on Saturday.

Sydney McLaughlin’s home debut got off to a rough start when she was scratched from a planned run in the 400 meters in Saturday’s Kentucky Invitational at Nutter Field House. It got worse as she and her team came up short at the finish of her anchor leg in the 4x400 relay in the last race of the meet.

McLaughlin, a track sensation who made the U.S. Olympic team last summer out of high school, looked to have cleared Ohio State All-American Maggie Barrie, but in the final kick McLaughlin broke her stride near the end, favoring an apparent injury. The Buckeyes finished in 3:29.04, 1.2 seconds faster than Kentucky.

“I’ve been having some hip issues lately,” said McLaughlin, who added she had been going back and forth with her coach about whether to run. “Being at a home meet and having support and having all these people come to watch us run and having my teammates there, I kind of wanted to be there and support them.”

Targeted to eventually run as many as four races, the 200 and 400 meters, the 100- and 400-meter hurdles, plus relays by the end of the outdoor season, UK Coach Edrick Floreal has been cautious with McLaughlin in the first two indoor meets and figures to continue to ease her to full speed as she recovers from Saturday’s setback.

“We’re going to work on those hip issues, and work on the things that are a little off, right now, and hopefully the next time we come out, I’ll be ready,” McLaughlin said.

Before the race, Floreal said training McLaughlin has been different because she’s already so fast. Even with the broken stride at the end of her run Saturday, she ran a split time of 53.0, the fastest on her team. McLaughlin ran the fastest ever 400 outdoor split by a high school female last year in 49.84.

“With that speed and that talent, the mistakes can be very costly,” Floreal said. “You’ve just got to be careful to make the right decisions with her.”

Last month, McLaughlin electrified the track world in her first event as a Wildcat, recording the second-fastest 300-meter time in U.S. history at the Hoosier Open.

“If you’re going to be special, you’ve got to do stuff that’s never been done before,” Floreal said. “If you run times other freshmen have run, then you’re just one of the regular people. So, she’s got to do special stuff all the time. And she knows that.”

Kentucky typically doesn’t put many athletes into its annual Kentucky Invitational home opener, but this year the event is not being held on back-to-back weekends with its more prestigious Rod McCravy Memorial. That event, which will feature Clemson, Illinois, Kansas, Purdue and Virginia Tech, will be held Feb. 3 and will be UK’s first home meet back from a three-event road trip beginning at the Clemson Invitational Jan. 19.

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Kentucky’s Sydney McLaughlin ran in the final leg of the women’s 4x400-meter relay during Day 2 of the Kentucky Invitational at Nutter Field House on Saturday. Michael Reaves

Floreal, in his sixth season at Kentucky, has developed a sterling reputation for developing and fine-tuning athletes, especially hurdlers.

Omar McLeod, the reigning men’s Olympic and world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, trains at UK and volunteers as a Floreal assistant. The same goes for Kori Carter, the reigning women’s 400-meter hurdles world champion. Add to that UK alumna Keni Harrison, the world record holder in the 100-meter hurdles who also trains on campus, and UK junior Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, an Olympian and 2016 NCAA 100-meter hurdles champion, and you have a clear picture of why McLaughlin chose Kentucky.

Each of those Floreal connections raced Saturday with McLeod and Harrison winning their respective 60-meter hurdles events.

“Having so many athletes that have been to that next level, where I’m trying to go, it’s great to have them push me and give me advice,” McLaughlin said. “Just to be able to train with them (helps), because they do take our training and our performance to the next level.”

Given the fame she’s already achieved (she has more than 76,100 Twitter followers for @GoSydGo), one might figure McLaughlin to be near her potential as an athlete. Floreal believes she’s not even close.

“It’s cool that she has a lot of stuff she can improve on,” Floreal said. “Usually, when you get a kid that good, they’re already polished, done. But she’s got a lot of stuff to work on, which is good, because that tells you how much better she can be. That’s the excitement for me, we just have to clean up some stuff, get her better, get a little stronger, work on her technique and I think she can be really special.”

McLaughlin has also bought into her team, prioritizing the relay over her individual event Saturday as an example. Her Twitter profile includes a banner photo of her hamming it up with a few of her fellow Cats.

“I think sometimes with the phenoms, they come in here and believe the world revolves around them,” Floreal said. “She hasn’t done that. She’s been working for teammates … hanging out, doing sleepovers, the same stuff any 18-year-old would do. … It’s sort of bridged the gap where they feel, ‘well, she’s just one of us,’ and I think it’s helped the rest of girls to say ‘hey, we push our game to the next level, too.”


▪  Kentucky pole vaulter Olivia Gruver, the reigning NCAA outdoor champion, set a school record vault of 4.60 meters to win Saturday’s event.

▪  UK alumnas Javianne Oliver (7.20) and Sha’Keela Saunders finished first and third, respectively, in the 60-meter dash final. UK’s Celera Barnes and Kayelle Clark took second and fifth, respectively.

▪  UK’s Dwight St. Hillaire won the men’s 400 meters in a time of 46.55.

▪  UK’s Latavia Combs won the triple jump with a distance of 12.84 meters.

▪  UK’s Marie-Josee Ebwea-Bile won the women’s long jump with a distance of 5.98 meters.

▪  The Kentucky men’s and women’s teams swept the distance medley relays held Friday night.