It’s becoming track and field’s modern day version of Ali-Frazier, with a congenial tone and tenor. Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad have provided track and field an intense and compelling union, a psychological and physical dependency to lift the other to lofty heights.
McLaughlin, who will turn 22 Aug. 7, one day before the conclusion of the Olympics, set the 400-meter hurdles world record Sunday night at Hayward Field at the University Oregon, site of the trials, becoming the first woman to ever run under 52 seconds, when she clocked a blistering 51.90. The Dunellen, New Jersey native bested her chief rival and Bayside, Queens product Muhammad, who ran 52.42 to finish second. The University of Southern California’s Ana Cockrell had a time of 53.70 for third place and a spot on the 400-meter hurdles team.
“It’s one of those moments you that you dream about and you think about, and you play in your head,” said McLaughlin, who was a high school sensation often competing locally at the Armory in Washington Heights before moving on to the University of Kentucky. “I knew from the moment I woke up today that it was going to be a great day…I’m going to cherish it for the rest of my life.”
She and Muhammad are extensions of some of the sport’s most memorable head-to-head battles. Roger Bannister versus John Landy in the mile. Renaldo Nehemiah and Greg Foster in the 110-meter hurdles. The contentious, performance enhancement drug tainted competition between Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson in the 100-meters. And Allyson Felix facing Veronica Campbell Brown in the 200-meters, to name some.
Since 2019, McLaughlin and Muhammad have raced against each other three times, with the 31-year-old Muhammad twice establishing a new world record. On Sunday it was McLaughlin’s turn. Nevertheless, she views her encounters with Muhammad as gifted runners simply pushing each other to greatness.
“People can call it whatever they want to call it,” maintained McLaughlin, the 2019 World Championships silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, a race in which Muhammad won gold and lowered her then world record from 52.20 to 52.16. “There’s no animosity. There’s no hard feelings. It’s just two people trying to be their best. We wouldn’t be able to have these world records go back and forth without one another.”
Muhammad wasn’t in peak form at the trials as she fought through a hamstring injury and COVID-19 over the past year. Barring any unforeseen setbacks, it’s conceivable that both women will cross the finish line in Japan below 52 seconds and set a new mark in the must-see 400-meter finals.