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Larry Vaught Weekly: Track Cats Land Rio Olympian

Photo: NJ Advanced Media

New Jersey sensation Sydney McLaughlin surprised many by signing with Kentucky. She competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio in the 400-meter hurdles just a few weeks after turning 17.

By: Larry Vaught

Jim Lambert didn’t need long to recognize how special Sydney McLaughlin was going to be.

“She is a once in a generation type athlete. Once she stepped on the track and I saw her, I knew she had ability I had not seen. I knew she was destined for greatness,” said Lambert, a reporter for NJ Advance Media (follow him on Twitter at @lambo2126).

He was right, too. At age 13, she broke the New Jersey state record in the 400-meter hurdles. At age 16, she made the U.S. Olympic team — she was third in the U.S. Olympic trails in a world junior record time of 54.15 seconds — and was the youngest United States Olympian in 44 years. She qualified for the semifinals in Rio, too.

Now the senior from Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, N.J., is headed to the University of Kentucky to join coach Edrick Floreal’s team.

“She captivated the hearts of the country by making the Olympics at age 16,” Lambert said. “A lot were shocked when she picked Kentucky but anyone who knows her sees why UK is the perfect fit for Sydney. She went to USC (Southern California) and Kentucky and then cancelled the rest of her visits.”

Lambert says the success Floreal has had coaching hurdlers, including world record holder Kendra Harris and Puerto Rico Olympian Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, made UK right for McLaughlin.

Lambert says McLaughlin’s success is in her family bloodline. Her father was a U.S. semifinalist in the 400 Olympic Trials. Her sister was a state track champion. Her brother was a Big Ten champion at Michigan last year.

“She has great genes along with a great work ethic. She is willing to do everything it takes to be special along with having a lot of God-given ability,” Lambert said. “You need to get to the track and see this girl. She made the Olympics when she was 16, which is mind-boggling. But she’s only scratching the surface of what she will be.”

Another New Jersey teen, Laurie Hernandez, won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics with the women’s gymnastics team and also took silver on the balance beam.

“Gymnasts are in their prime at that age in high school. For Sydney to do what she did at that age blows my mind. Most hurdlers reach their peak in their mid-20’s,” Lambert said. “She was competing against women who have been doing this for 10 years. For her to get to Rio is one of the greatest accomplishments in track and field history. To do something that has not been in 44 years says it all. We may never see this again.”

Lambert says McLaughlin doesn’t act special on the track or away from the competition. He noted how she said after the U.S. Olympic Trails that the first thing she wanted was a “cheeseburger” after qualifying for the Olympics.

“She is just a regular kid. Humble, happy-go-lucky, silly kid,” Lambert said. “As great as she is on the track, off the track she is just as amazing. She volunteers at a soup kitchen. She helped after the hurricane hit here.

“She is a rock star everywhere she goes in New Jersey. She handles it well and always has a smile on her face. She embraces it.”

Lambert said McLaughlin was a skilled soccer and basketball player in middle school before deciding to concentrate on track where some have compared her to nine-time Olympic medalist Alyson Felix, who is McLaughlin’s role model.

“That’s how great Sydney could be. The baton could be passed from Felix to her in the future,” Lambert said. “As long as she stays healthy and keeps this passion, it could happen.”

Lambert said UK fans had a good idea they might be seeing greatness when New Jersey’s Karl-Anthony Towns came to Kentucky — and he’s certainly continuing to show greatness in the NBA.

“That’s the kind of impact she will have. You are going to see greatness and UK fans are going to be treated to something special,” Lambert said. “You have to go see her. I can’t sleep the night before I am going to see her run. She is unbelievable.”

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