Sydney McLaughlin and the toxicity of fame

Written by Sriram Veera

July 23, 2022 11:55:02 pm

Gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin, of the United States, walks the track after winning the final of the women's 400-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships on Friday, July 22, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Sitting in her car, Sydney McLaughlin breaks down in tears asking for a “bit of respect”. It was two months after she had won the gold at the Tokyo olympics. She was 21. For 10 minutes in front of her phone camera, she pours her heart out. “People really think I am standing here because of the way I look, because of my followers ..” She starts sobbing. “It blows my mind. People who were my team-mates, people who have seen me die every day, believe I am here because of my followers. Because I am light-skinned. I can’t control what the colour of my skin is. I can’t control who is pressing the follow button but I can control what I do on that track – and that’s the thing that doesn’t get the respect. It blows my mind.”

“Not even three days ago I literally achieved one of my life’s dreams of breaking the world record, and I’m going to be honest, a lot of the people around me did not respond how I thought they would … I felt like the people I thought would be the most excited for me literally almost didn’t even care. And, I have some really great people in my life that love me more than I can say some family loves me … And, I’m just going to be real, it hurts. I’m still hurt … just not understanding when it’s going to be enough for a lot of people … It’s a sick world. There is so much good in this world but there is so much sickness. I pray for healing and I really hope that people can, like, say that they don’t have to live in this world of just hate. There is such a better way …”

The toxicity of fame is perhaps one of the reasons she has turned to faith in a big way. Her Instagram is filled with posts about God. “I’ve worked really hard and been very cautious of how I carry myself, of the things that I post, because I want to glorify God and I want to be a good example to people but our world only accepts ignorance … Even in a moment where I should have made everything about me I gave it to God but … people reject truth. I know they are not rejecting me, they are rejecting Jesus living in me and that’s fine but I’m just being honest.”

On Saturday, at the world championships, McLaughlin ran the race of her life and possibly of the generation when she steamrolled everyone else on her way to an incredible world record timing of 50.68 in the 400m, obliterating her own record by 0.73 seconds. Absurdly, she thinks the best is yet to come.

“I think we are all figuring it out. Yes, there are 10 berries (the hurdles), but we can run them faster than people think. I still think that wasn’t a super clean race.”

To understand the significance of McLaughlin’s achievement, one must go back to the day of US qualification trials six years ago. She had woken up in the morning, staring at the wall in panic. “Oh gosh, I have to race today,” she once shared in a documentary by FloTrack. When she reached the track, things turned eerier. “Everybody was warming up and I thought I can’t do it.” She was 16. “Everyone was so grown up.”

She dialled her father and broke down. “Dad, I don’t want to run. I will go in four years’ time, I promise.” Her father coaxed her to run that day and leave the rest for later. She would start her run but, in a blink, realise Dalilah Muhammad, who won the bronze on Saturday, was too far out.

“[Dalilah] Muhammad was out there like there was no catching her. I was like even if I wanted to catch up with her, I probably couldn’t.”

Congratulations Sydney McLaughlin for the New World Record, that was really really fast 🔥 50.68s.

Gold Medal 400m Hurdles #WorldAthleticsChamps

Salute to the Legend @GoSydGo


— Athletics Federation of India (@afiindia) July 23, 2022

By the ninth hurdle – 11 in all – was with the final three runners. “I was thinking somebody is not going to make it. I need to push harder and hold my form.”

And she did exactly that to qualify but there was no joy. “I don’t know whether I was done or was I more scared that I made the team. I was like, ‘Oh god, oh god’”.

That uneasiness stayed through her at the Rio Olympics where she would be eliminated in the semifinals. She didn’t like staying at the Games Village and she would be in her room alone and wonder what she was doing there. The fierce competitive spirit in the runners shook her being. “It messes with your head. That, for some people, this is what they live for; I wasn’t up for it.”

50.68 🤯

It’s @GoSydGo's 🇺🇸 world, we’re just living in it #WorldAthleticsChamps

— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) July 23, 2022

She decided to change her mindset, just like she did when she was 7 and ran in a school race for a chocolate bar. She didn’t want to run but her parents promised a candy and she won that 100m. She liked her choco bar, she liked the pride she saw in her parents’ eyes.

She went on to achieve improbable things, including the gold at Tokyo Olympics last year, but something inside was broken. “I don’t want fame, I would just like a little bit of respect. We don’t have to be best friends. You may not agree with my message. But in the sport, at the age of 21, to be a two time Olympian and a world record holder, I would just like a little bit of respect. You guys can have all that other stuff,” she would say in that video message.

A year later, she shrugged off that disappointment to get on with her life with the help of her faith.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Sydney McLaughlin (@sydneymclaughlin16)


Last year, her insta bio read: Jesus saved me. Right now, it reads, “Jesus is the Lord’. In 2020, she posted a picture of getting baptised in the ocean at a beach in Los Angeles: ““For twenty-one years I was running from the greatest gift I could ever receive. And by His grace, I have been saved. I no longer live, but Christ in me. My past has been made clean because of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In that 10-minute video, she would reiterate her belief. “I’m so grateful I have a relationship with God the way that I do because without it, I think I would honestly be going crazy right now,” she said. “There’s so many things I just don’t understand about the world, about our sport, about our culture. It makes no sense a lot of the time.”

On Saturday, after her win, she would talk about getting in the zone, or the “flow state”.

“I would definitely say it’s a flow state,” she said, “where you’re putting everything that you’ve done in practice into the race to the point where you’re just letting your body do what it does.”

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In a flow, in a zone, in her faith bubble, McLaughlin ran the race of her life to leave the world in awe, her haters behind, and leaving a trail of grace, poise, style, ambition. She is just 22. And she says there is more to come.

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