Sydney McLaughlin and the Toxicity of Fame

Sitting in her car, Sydney McLaughlin bursts into tears and begs for “a little respect”. It was two months after she won gold at the Tokyo Olympics. She was 21. For ten minutes she pours out her heart in front of her cellphone camera. “People really think I’m here for my looks, for my followers…” She starts to sob. “It blows my mind. People who were my teammates, people who see me die every day think I’m here for my followers. Because I’m fair skinned. I can’t control my skin color. I can’t control who hits the follow button, but I can control what I do on this track – and that’s what’s disrespected. It blows my mind.”

“Not even three days ago I literally achieved one of my lifelong dreams which is to break the world record and I’ll be honest a lot of people around me didn’t react the way I imagined… I felt like the people I thought , that would be the most exciting because I literally almost didn’t care. And I’ve got some really great people in my life who love me more than I can say any family loves me… And I’ll just be honest, it hurts. I’m still hurting…just don’t see when it will be enough for many people…It’s a sick world. There is so much good in this world, but there is so much sickness. I am praying for healing and I really hope people can say they don’t have to live in this world of hate. There is such a better way…”

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

On Saturday at the World Championships, McLaughlin ran the race of her life and possibly of the generation as she rolled over everyone else on her way to an incredible world record time of 50.68 in the 400m and erasing her own record by 0.73 seconds. Absurdly, she thinks the best is yet to come.

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

To understand the significance of McLaughlin’s performance, one has to go back to the day of the US Qualifications six years ago. She had woken up in the morning and stared at the wall in panic. “Oh god, I have to race today,” she once shared in a FloTrack documentary. As she got to the track, things got scarier. “Everyone was warming up and I thought I couldn’t do it.” She was 16. “Everyone was so grown up.”

She called her father and broke down. “Dad, I don’t want to run. I’ll go in four years, I promise.” Her father persuaded her to run that day and save the rest for later. She would start her run, but realized in no time that Dalilah Muhammad, who won Saturday’s bronze, was too far away.

“[Dalilah] Muhammad was out there like there was nothing to catch. I figured even if I wanted to catch them, I probably couldn’t.”

By the ninth hurdle – 11 in total – I was with the last three runners. “I thought someone wouldn’t make it. I have to push harder and keep my form.”

And she did just that to qualify, but there was no joy. β€œI don’t know if I was done or more scared to get on the team. I was like, ‘Oh god, oh god’”.

That uneasiness stayed with her at the Rio Olympics, where she would be eliminated in the semifinals. She didn’t like staying at Games Village and she would be alone in her room wondering what she was doing there. The wild competitive spirit of the runners shook her. “It goes through your head. That for some people that’s what they live for; I wasn’t ready for that.”

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

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

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

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Last year her Insta bio read: Jesus saved me. At the moment it says: β€œJesus is Lord”. In 2020, she posted a picture of her baptism in the sea on a Los Angeles beach: “For twenty-one years, I ran from the greatest gift I could ever get. And by his grace I have been saved. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. My past has been made clean by my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

In this 10 minute video, she reaffirmed her faith. “I’m so thankful to have that kind of relationship with God because without it I would be really going insane right now,” she said. “There are so many things about the world, about our sport, about our culture that I just don’t understand. It often makes no sense.”

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

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

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

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