Source for All Photos Above: Getty Images
Sprinting fans across the globe have been privy to 2 world-record performances in the span of 1 week. Let that sink in. Note also that each of the 2 athletes that clocked their historic times were competing in their respective engendered sections of the same event: the 400-meter hurdles. For those who are confused as to the significance of this detail, let’s take in some perspective.
On the men’s side of the event, there have been a total of 22 different world records including the one witnessed on Thursday. The longest held of these world record times was established by American Olympian, Kevin Young, at the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona. His official time of 46.78 seconds sustained itself as the event’s top time for nearly 29 years.
An entire generation of the world’s best 400-meter hurdlers couldn’t eclipse Young’s gold medal-winning, world record performance, which was looking more and more untouchable. Another half-decade and Young’s world record would reach mystic status.
However, the narrative surrounding the event’s fate was beginning to change in the second decade of Young’s monopoly over the record books. The source of this hope went by the surnames of Warholm, Benjamin, and Samba.
Norwegian Karsten Warholm’s rise through the professional ranks of the sprinting world would come to a head at the 2017 World Championships in London, where he’d dethrone reigning Olympic gold medalist and World Champion, Kerron Clement from the U.S. This was his first major accolade, sure. But, at 21, his potential was largely untapped.
American-born Antiguan Rai Benjamin grew and developed through the United States’ collegiate ranks. Though first starting out at UCLA, Benjamin’s breakout year came in 2018 when he transferred out to USC for his junior season. At the NCAA Track and Field Championships that year, Benjamin shelved an individual victory in the 400m hurdles, recording a personal best at 47.02 seconds. Still yet to break the 47 second threshold, though Benjamin needed to polish his technique. His words, not mine. Referencing his NCAA title-clinching performance, Benjamin wrote “I chopped the entire back stretch trying to stay at 13 strides between hurdles … and next year, I’ll be aiming for 12 strides between hurdles.” And that next year, he’d be working out his new race plan as a professional, preparing for Worlds.
Going into the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Warholm and Benjamin were set to face off with the only other 400-meter hurdler outside of Young to ever break the 47 second barrier: Abderrahman Samba. In 2015, the young, promising Qatari athlete had transferred his allegiance from his father’s home in Mauritania to Doha. By 2017, a 21-year old Samba was primed for a breakthrough performance in London – as was Warholm. Going head-to-head, we now know that Warholm got the best of the matchup; Samba’s stumble over the final hurdle costed him what would’ve been a 3rd place finish, only to actually second to last. Despite this crucial mishap, Samba would continue forward unperturbed, eventually producing his huge 46.98 second performance the following year.
The stage was set. The newly revitalized men’s 400-meter hurdles event would boast the reigning World Champion, a collegiate superstar, and the 2nd fastest quarter-mile hurdler of all time. With Warholm looking to validate his 2017 Worlds victory, Benjamin focused on establishing himself professionally, and Samba working to deliver in the clutch, this 2019 World Championships final had all the makings to reset the event’s longstanding world record.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened at all. The 3 of them did finish the race in the top 3, but the times weren’t even close to threatening Young’s 46.78 nor the 47-second mark for that matter. Warholm, who successfully retained his status as World Champion, finished the race in 47.42 seconds. Solid, but not close. Benjamin came in behind Warholm at 47.66. Decent, but again not close. And to round out the medalists, Samba captured bronze at 48.03 seconds. Underwhelming, given the expectations.
As disappointing as it was to see the world record stand still in their first race amongst each other, time was on their side. Warholm and Samba were 23. Benjamin, 21. The future for the 400-meter hurdles shined brighter than it ever had before. And it’s been a treat to witness that reality transpire.
Several months after Doha, Warholm and Benjamin broke 47 seconds together at a Diamond League meet.
Such strides made a world record at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo a near formality, but we all know what happened next. The world was brought the year of the pandemic, breeding very limited circumstances for sporting events to take place. In the states, Benjamin saw no official action in 2020. Internationally, Warholm managed to compete and even improved upon his 46.92 second personal best down to 46.87 seconds.
Then came 2021, when the now delayed Tokyo Olympics would receive the juiciest hype material ever: two historic time trials from Warholm and Benjamin. Benjamin would act first at the U.S. Olympic Trials. For his finals race at the Trials, Benjamin would clock himself in at 46.84 seconds, which was faster than Warholm’s personal best, but not quite the world record he was looking for. In response, Warholm did the unthinkable. From lane 7 at a Diamond League meet just a few days ago, Warholm crushed his personal best and considerably improved upon Young’s former 29-year old world record, running a ridiculous time of 46.70 seconds. What’s more? It was the first meet of his 2021 campaign and there there was no one in the meet that could push or challenge him, but himself. Warholm’s masterpiece was a true time trial.
Given the momentum of these two and the less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding Warholm’s world record performance, I can’t possibly imagine an Olympic Finals matchup between these two that won’t end in a new world record. And though Samba’s 2021 campaign at present seems to set him as the odd man out, his efforts come Finals time will surely add to the already intense atmosphere surrounding the men’s 400-meter hurdles.
With all that said, there’s still the women’s side to unpack.
The story behind the women’s 400-meter hurdles heading into Tokyo is so much different, and just as, if not more intriguing for it.
For the men, we essentially saw a group of youngsters across the globe take the event by storm, injecting into it a fervent energy that hadn’t been felt for decades. For the women, we find ourselves focused on two Americans, one a seasoned champion and the other a prodigious up-and-comer.
Following Dalilah Muhammad’s collegiate years as a SoCal Trojan, her transcendent impact on the event would take some time to manifest. She graduated in 2012 and did earn a Silver at the 2013 Worlds in Moscow, but wouldn’t record an official time under 53 seconds until 4 years later during her 2016 campaign. It was at this point when the 26 year old would become a more serious threat to the event’s top times.
Though still a ways off Yulia Pechonkina’s 52.34 world record, Muhammad would not refrain from making history in that year’s Rio Olympics. Taking home Gold in a solid 53.13 second performance made Muhammad the first American to ever win the women’s 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic stage. Oh, how the tables were turned. And if Muhammad’s entry into the champions club was not evidence enough, the future of the event would secure itself in American hands after the addition of a certain exciting young phenom.
Sydney McLaughlin was a mere 17 year-old high schooler when Muhammad won in Rio, but she was there nonetheless. That’s right, McLaughlin finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials Final to become the youngest Olympian since 1972. Needless to say, McLaughlin flashed generational talent and though she only reached the semifinals in her first Olympics, high expectations would follow her from then on.
McLaughlin would go on to compete for one year at the collegiate level where she’d represent the University of Kentucky. With her talent, there was no one to really test her as she cruised to her first and final NCAA title in the 400-meter hurdles. Her first professional season in 2019 would truly indicate the magnitude of her will to be the best.
By this time, Muhammad had pocketed a rather disappointing second-place finish at the 2017 World Championships, with sights on redeeming her top position in Doha. And while Doha would certainly embody the climax of McLaughlin’s head-to-head with her veteran competitor, she’d actually face Muhammad for two races prior, the first of which being the U.S. Nationals.
The world would finally get to see the polished maturity of Muhammad against the sheer natural ability of McLaughlin.
Muhammad’s race plan was already well-known and proven. Muhammad favored fast starts and early leads. This way, competitors would always be forced to play catch-up throughout the entire duration of the race. And as was often the case, most would leave too much cushion to be compensated for down the home stretch. Plus, though Muhammad got out fast, she didn’t finish slow. Her discipline to maintain form in the final push enabled her trained stamina to pull through for her in the final 100 meters of races.
In contrast, McLaughlin was not big on overwhelmingly fast starts. Instead, she pushed out notably long strides to pace the competition in the first 200 meters, before kicking into top gear for the remainder of the race. The problem was that she hadn’t yet figured out how to smoothly alternate her lead legs. Ideally, she preferred leading with her right leg, for which her form was smooth and pristine. When she found herself needing to utilize her left leg as lead, however, her form was not as effortless and efficient. To compensate for this imbalance in-race, McLaughlin occasionally found herself chopping at hurdles, especially in the latter stages of the race, which would negatively impact her ability to maximize her brilliant flat 400-meter speed. In college, she could get away with some of these imperfections, but at the highest level? Yeah, no.
The U.S. Nationals were located in Des Moines, Iowa and come the day of finals, the track was showered with rain, leaving puddles throughout. Such unfriendly weather conditions discouraged the likelihood of fast times, but as it turned out, Muhammad’s will to reset the record books in lieu of a journey to eventually grab Gold in Doha was enough to push her to heighten the world record to new heights.
As expected, Muhammad was fast out the gates and never relinquished her lead, running a lightning time of 52.20 seconds. McLaughlin, who seemed to have an outsider’s chance at challenging the reigning Olympic champion, couldn’t keep up despite delivering her first sub-53 second performance.
This first matchup between these two as pros established an early narrative: McLaughlin was the young, formidable challenger, but Muhammad was head and shoulders above everyone. The implied sentiment was true; McLaughlin needed more time to target the weaknesses in her hurdling technique over the quarter-mile distance. And to her credit, she did just that.
Their second head-to-head came about a month later, but with lower stakes. It was just a Diamond League meet, practically functioning as a tune-up to the World Championships. As such, there was no urgency in Muhammad’s handling of that outing. McLaughlin came out with a victory and a personal best, but the more important win would have to be dealt later that year in Doha.
The day was upon us. Muhammad would finally have her shot at adding “World Champion” to her already long list of superlatives. McLaughlin would have yet another opportunity to measure herself up against Muhammad. The stage was set and the event’s two favorites did not disappoint.
Muhammad’s race went by the book. No surprises. The biggest story of the race, at least from my vantage point, was how much McLaughlin improved. Unlike their race at the U.S. Nationals, McLaughlin was within striking distance of Muhammad going into the home stretch. Her form through the first 7 and final 2 hurdles were immaculate, even leading into the last hurdle with her left leg. Unfortunately, she still came up short. Leading into the 8th hurdle, McLaughlin’s approach chopped up ever so subtly; this was the first hurdle with which she would introduce her left leg as the lead. And while this may have only caused a slight widening of the marginal distance between McLaughlin and Muhammad, that margin was huge considering the 1st and 2nd place times finished just 0.07 seconds apart.
Regardless, this race was the closest thing to a 2-winner race. Muhammad was the obvious winner, growing her world record by 0.04 seconds and capturing that elusive World Championship win. But, McLaughlin was the subliminal winner here. She showed the world just how rapidly she was capable of learning and how willing she was to put in the work to implement the necessary adjustments.
For me, their ultimate matchup in 2019 effectively changed the narrative behind their story: sooner rather than later, Muhammad would have to pass over the torch to McLaughlin, probably at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Unfortunately, as we’ve already discussed, COVID happened, the Olympics were moved to 2021, and meets for the year were limited. Neither Muhammad nor McLaughlin got any 400-meter hurdles races in. Their journey together was forcibly paused. But, when things resumed, McLaughlin was inadvertently given a head start.
Training under her new coach, the legend who is Bobby Kersee, McLaughlin not only continued to work on effectively alternating her lead leg between hurdles, but also competed in a handful of 60 and 100-meter hurdle events in preparation for her first U.S. Olympic trials in late June.
In the meantime, Muhammad’s 2021 campaign was filled with obstacles, all of which limited her ability to sufficiently prepare for the Trials. She suffered from COVID for a span of time and dealt with lingering injuries throughout the beginning parts of 2021. At the end of the day, though, excuses cannot exist for the champion that Muhammad is and she would find a way to come ready to battle McLaughlin once more on June 27th.
McLaughlin and Muhammad both cruised through the quarters and semis, but going into their head-to-head this time around, it just felt like McLaughlin had the upper-hand. To me, it was almost guaranteed that McLaughlin would win the race because of McLaughlin’s uninterrupted training advantages, but it was for this very reason that I didn’t think a world record was in the cards. With Muhammad behind on her training for the year, I anticipated the race to run similar to that of their 2nd matchup in 2019: McLaughlin pulls out the win with a solid time, Muhammad does just enough to finish top 3, and the world record goes untouched since McLaughlin doesn’t have a prime Muhammad to push her.
Looking back, it was for the better that my expectations were transcended by the both of them. Muhammad came ready to run and that set everything in motion. Per usual, Muhammad shot out of the blocks to take the early lead. But, in rather unusual fashion, McLaughlin not only stayed in touch with Muhammad for the entire first half of the race, she did so while consistently alternating her lead leg. Right, left, right, left, right for the first five hurdles she went. Her rhythm and comfort heading into the second bend was obvious and it was clear she was on the verge of something special. There was no chop at the 8th hurdle this time around and McLaughlin overtook Muhammad by the 9th hurdle. Moments later, the world record was set anew and by a ridiculously large margin. 51.90.
In one or two years time, I believe their race here at the U.S. Olympics trials will be evaluated as the passing of the torch moment. For all that Muhammad has accomplished and all the medals that still await her, I think her gold medal win in Doha will be the last gold medal of her career in the event, barring any unforeseen injuries to McLaughlin. After all, McLaughlin was always billed as the prodigy, the phenom. And even still at the young age of 21 years, she has arrived. She’s now the best female 400-meter hurdler in the world and I don’t see Muhammad ever reclaiming that title back.
For McLaughlin, though, the job is far from done. Muhammad will have time to regroup before coming to Tokyo fresh and determined to defend her Olympic gold medal status. McLaughlin may already be the queen of the 400-meter hurdles event, but in order to validate that position, she must become a champion.