By Beth Harris
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — Sydney McLaughlin is running with a fast crowd these days. The 16-year-old sprinter and hurdler heads to the Rio Olympics as the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team. First, though, she wants to get home, hug her dog and eat some junk food before taking on the world.
McLaughlin caps a whirlwind few weeks with a stroll down the red carpet at the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night. She’s attending as winner of the girls’ national prep athlete of the year trophy she picked up Tuesday night.
She arrived in Los Angeles directly from making her first Olympic team by finishing third in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. trials last Sunday in Oregon. Her time of 54.14 seconds was a world junior record.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” she said.
After mingling with some of the world’s best professional athletes, McLaughlin goes home to Dunellen, N.J., for a brief visit. She’s missing Gamble her cockapoo dog, whom she hasn’t seen in three weeks.
Her parents, Willie and Mary, are scrambling to join her in Rio.
“There’s no way we’re going to let our baby girl go to another country without us being there,” said Willie, who works from home as a network engineer for AT&T. “Besides, how many times do you get to see your kids in the Olympics?”
Mary joked, “We’ll just be buying a lot of bug spray.”
Willie McLaughlin qualified for the 400-meter semifinals at the 1984 U.S. trials, but didn’t make the Olympic team. Mary McLaughlin, who works at Rutgers University, is a former runner, too. The couple met at Manhattan College in New York City.
“We planned for it for years,” Willie said of his daughter’s Olympic qualification, “but it’s actually here and it’s hard to believe.”
Her sister and two brothers will watch from the couch “and party at the house,” Sydney joked.
McLaughlin couldn’t have predicted she would be in Rio. Her high school track season began with a diagnosis of mononucleosis that kept her out 1 ½ months. Her mother had a heart attack.
“Every Olympian has two or three major struggles before they make it,” she told the crowd at the prep awards. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it and somehow I did.”
At trials, McLaughlin had what she called “a mental breakdown” before her first event. She called her dad in full freak-out mode, panicked at the prospect of being a teen running against grown women.
Her coaches calmed her down and “three races later I’m an Olympian,” she said.
“When you put her on the track, you’re not running against a 16-year-old,” Willie McLaughlin said. “You’re running against a very talented, seasoned athlete. That’s what these women are finding out the hard way. I told her, ‘They’re more scared of you than you are of them. They’ve got more to lose than you and that’s the attitude you need to take into it.’”
McLaughlin has a modest goal for her first Games.
“I’m just going to get the experience. There’s so many more years to try again and so many more races to run,” she said. “I don’t even think I’m thinking about place or time. I’m going to hang out with the girls on the team. It’s kind of like vacation and work at the same time.”
From a dad’s perspective, Willie McLaughlin hopes his daughter gains confidence and hones the ability to interact and talk with anyone at the Olympics.
“She’s been really blessed with talent that other people simply don’t have,” he said.
McLaughlin told Sydney that because of her track talent she can go places and do things that others can’t.
“Don’t be afraid of that,” he told her. “Don’t be afraid of doing things new.”
From his perspective as a track coach, Willie is encouraging his daughter to step up her nutrition and embrace the lifestyle of a high-level athlete. That means cutting out junk food and some of “the 16-year-old baggage,” as he calls it.
“We had the boys, going to the mall, all that other stuff,” he said, smiling. “She needs to mature into that woman that’s really going to take care of her body and take care of her instrument of success.”
Sydney, named for her dad’s favorite actor Sidney Poitier, is already showing her stuff in the nail art department. McLaughlin’s long fingernails were decked out in sparkling silver polish, a popular trend among female sprinters.
She turns 17 on Aug. 7, days before the track competition begins in Rio. She’ll be a senior this fall at Union Catholic High in Scotch Plains with some wild stories to tell.