Mark Story

Sydney McLaughlin ‘mania’ is coming to Kentucky

When Sydney McLaughlin competed for the United States in the 400 meter hurdles in Rio de Janeiro last year, she was the youngest American to compete in Olympics track and field since 1972.
When Sydney McLaughlin competed for the United States in the 400 meter hurdles in Rio de Janeiro last year, she was the youngest American to compete in Olympics track and field since 1972. Associated Press

Sydney McLaughlin, the teenage U.S. Olympic hurdler, made her official recruiting visit to the University of Kentucky last November when the Wildcats football team faced Georgia. At the Cats-Bulldogs game, UK track and field coach Edrick Floreal got his official introduction to “McLaughlin mania.”

“Walking at the Kentucky football game with her was a nightmare. We couldn’t get to our seats or anywhere because people were stopping us for selfies,” Floreal said. “… She’s very, very popular and very, very likable. She’ll stop for selfies and laugh and joke and have conversations with people.”

For once, the most nationally prominent recruit who will be arriving at the University of Kentucky in the coming school year is not a men’s basketball player. McLaughlin, a UK track signee, has some 30,000 more Twitter followers than any of John Calipari’s eight incoming players for 2017-18.

A Dunnellen, N.J., product, McLaughlin qualified for the U.S. Olympic team last summer in the 400-meter hurdles as a 16-year-old, becoming the youngest American to make the Olympics in track since 1972. In doing so, she created a national following.

After reaching the Olympic semifinals in Rio de Janeiro only days after turning 17, McLaughlin has more than backed up her hype this year as a senior at New Jersey’s Union Catholic High School.

To hit just two of her many 2017 highlights, this spring she broke the world junior record in the 400 hurdles by running what was the third fastest overall time (54.03 seconds) for any age in the world this year.

This past weekend, McLaughlin ran a scalding 49.85 seconds split in the 400 meters, taking her Union Catholic team from sixth place to victory on the final leg of the Swedish relay at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in Greensboro, N.C.

It is believed to be the fastest 400-meter split (the time of a relay leg) ever run by a U.S. high school female.

Not often does a university sign an athlete being compared by USA Today to LeBron James for high school dominance in their sport.

In getting McLaughlin, UK did just that.

How did Kentucky pull it off?

Floreal says McLaughlin’s father, Willie, actually initiated contact with UK.

“Her dad, unbeknownst to me, had been sort of tracking (Kentucky),” Floreal said. “He knew everybody who had signed at Kentucky. He knew everybody we’ve had who improved. He could read me my stats better than I could. … (He said) ‘Even the walk-ons have gotten better.’ So that was sort of the beginning of that relationship. The rest of that was just getting Sydney to be comfortable (with Kentucky).”

Over the past four years, the UK women’s track program has been on the rise, finishing seventh, second, 11th and fourth (this season) as a team in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Nevertheless, McLaughlin could have picked many track and field programs with more long-standing tradition than Kentucky.

“She visited (UK), and fell in love with the place,” Floreal said. “Sydney really made the decision (to pick Kentucky). I’m not sure if everybody in her entourage was that comfortable, but she was unanimous. She left her (recruiting) visit (to UK) and she had already made up her mind. I think she had other visits (scheduled) and she canceled all of them.”

Ask Floreal what McLaughlin can potentially mean to Kentucky competitively, and his reply will make you widen your eyes.

Keep in mind, UK’s Sha’keela Saunders won the long jump in the 2017 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Ex-Kentucky star Dezerea Bryant won the 2015 NCAA outdoor 200 meters championship. Ex-Cat Kendra Harrison and current UK star Jasmine Camacho-Quinn won the outdoor national championship in the 100-meter hurdles in back-to-back years (2015 and ’16, respectively).

Harrison is now the world record holder in the 100 hurdles.

Sydney McLaughlin “is better than anybody we’ve ever had in all those events coming out of high school,” Floreal said. “Sydney’s performance coming out of high school is better than all of them (in their best events). And she is just one person.”

Her high school career now over, McLaughlin is next expected to compete against the best American professionals at the U.S. Championships this weekend in Sacramento.

Even before McLaughlin arrives in Lexington, Floreal says her stamp of approval has changed the way Kentucky is seen in the track and field world.

“Now, all of a sudden, everybody who is anybody, because Sydney (picked UK), it’s OK to go to Kentucky because Sydney is coming,” Floreal said.

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