The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Sydney’s Mission, Should She Accept It

Oct 19th, 2022
12:27 pm PDT

Sydney McLaughlin has become a major force in the 400 hurdles. At the tender age of twenty three, she’s won an Olympic title, a World title, and set three world records! Oh, she’s also run seven of the top ten times ever run in the event. All in the two seasons since Covid. Her most recent record of 50.68 is considered Beamonesque by most. Meaning it’s so good, that it could be decades before anyone else will be able to approach it.

So, when you are that good, what do you do next? Well, prior to the World Championships, her coach, Bobby Kersee, said that if she put the record out of reach, they might consider the open 400. Ok. Mission accomplished. Record destroyed and put out of reach. That done, Sydney was quoted recently saying that she wanted to go after the open 400 record! So, it appears that Bobby has convinced her to try.

That being the case, what I want to look at today, is just what that will entail. Because the record that she is targeting, is every bit as epic, as the record she just set! That record was run by Marita Koch of East Germany at the 1985 World Cup – 37 years ago! On that day, Marita ran 47.60 in the 400. Breaking the previous record of 47.99 that was set by 800 WR holder Jarmila Kratochvilova. Those records being the only two sub 48 performances in history. Second to Koch in her record race was 48.27 – still the # 9 best time ever. Koch herself ran five of the fastest ten times in history. So she clearly dominated the 400 just like Sydney is dominating the hurdles today.

Marita was one of history’s best all around sprinters. No matter what era you attempt to compare her to. In addition to the 400, she also won the 200 at the ’85 World Cup in 21.91 for an outstanding double. At the time she also held the WR in the 200 at 21.71 – still =#9 all time A mark that she ran twice. She was also one of the world’s best in the 100 with a PB of 10.83. At the time making her #3 all time behind Evelyn Ashford and Marlies Gohr. She anchored the then WR 4×4 of 3:15.92 with a 47.70, and the victorious 4×4 at the World Cup in 47.9 – giving her marks of 21.91, 47.60, and 47.9 in the meet. She also anchored a European title 4×4 in 47.9, and had several carries between 48.2-48.4 during her career. In a nutshell, this is the athlete that Sydney has decided to chase.

If Sydney chooses this assignment, the first record in her path would be the American record in the 400. That is currently held by Sanya Richards Ross at 48.70 – just over a second behind the World record. As a matter of fact, only two American women have ever run under 49.00 in the open 400. The other being 1984 Olympic 400 champion Valarie Brisco, who ran 48.83. They are two of only twelve women that have run under the 49 second barrier in the event! So clearly it’s not the easiest of tasks.

America’s most recent 400 gold medalist is Allyson Felix. Her PB in the event being 49.28. While many felt that Allyson was potentially America’s best 400 meter sprinter, she spent most of her career focusing on the 200 meters where she has a PB of 21.69. It wasn’t until later in her career, that she truly started to run the 400. Allyson did split 47.7 in the 4×4. As well as 48.0, and several mid 48’s. That said, most relay splits are roughly a second faster than open races, because you get a running/moving start. As opposed to a dead start from the blocks. And many athletes run much better in relays than they do in open races. For various reasons.

I say these things because trying to predict what someone is able to run in the 400 is extremely difficult. I know that many people have taken Sydney’s World Championships relay anchor as “proof” that she will break the record. I take it as, I’m sure she can run a really good 400. For example, Femke Bol, who was second to Sydney in the hurdles at Worlds, has run several mid 48 second relay splits for the Netherlands. Her best open 400 however, is the 49.44 that she ran to win this year’s European Championships.

Similarly, great 400 hurdlers don’t necessarily become great open 400 runners. Karsten Warholm set the men’s WR in the hurdles at an amazing 45.92. His best open 400 is 44.85 which he tried to better in 2021 but couldn’t. Rai Benjamin has run 46.17 in the hurdles, but “only” has a best of 44.31 in the 400. Though he’s run several mid 43 second splits in the relay.

My point to all of this is that while fans are excited about Sydney running the 400, until she runs it a few times, it’s going to be very difficult to figure out just how well she’s going to do. Her current PB is 50.07, which she ran her freshman year at Kentucky. She’s a much better athlete now, as she was 52.75 in the hurdles back then. While I’ve just shown that there is no direct correlation between hurdle and open times in the 400, even if Sydney was able to cut the same 2 seconds off of her open time that she has from her hurdle time. That would still leave her a half second off of the world record in the 400 at 48.07!

To her benefit, she is being coached by one of the best 400 coaches in history in Bobby Kersee. Bobby was the coach of both Valerie Brisco, and Allyson Felix. So, if there is a pairing of athlete and coach that is capable of going after something this epic, this is the pairing to do it, in my opinion.

I will give Sydney one other “push” in her pursuit of the WR. That’s the return of Salwa Eid Naser to the sport. Who is Naser? Naser was the 2019 World Champion in the 400 at a sizzling 48.14. Making her the third fastest quartermiler in the history of the event. She is returning to the sport, because like Christian Coleman, she was given a “time out” for missing wherabouts tests. Ms Naser is still quite young at only 24 years old. So that makes her a very formidable opponent for Sydney. An opponent that could be competing against Sydney for years to come. I say this because I’m sure there are those that will point out that Shaunae Miller UIbo is still competing. Yes, she is, and as a matter of fact, she won this year’s World title. However, Shaunae “only” ran 49.11 in 2022, and her times have been consistently getting slower in recent seasons. She will be 29 years old next year and has stated that she wants to run the 200 in 2023. All of which seems to take her out of the running to be a major competitor for Sydney.

Are there any others that could possibly be in the mix in the 400? If we’re talking about competitors at the level of Sydney and Salwa, I would say maybe three others. Marileidy Paulino lost decisively to Miller UIbo at Worlds, but ended her season with a PB 48.99 in Zurich – becoming #12 all time. If this was an indication of where she is now headed, then she could be a legitimate contender. That’s a big if however, given the Zurich run was a huge outlier for her. We need to see a bit more consistency from her before I would give her “major contender” status. A more likely test, in my opinion, would come from Femke Bol. Bol is #3 all time in the hurdles and currently Sydney’s biggest competition in that event. Though no one is truly close to Sydney at this point in the hurdles. Femke is one of the most competitive athletes out there right now however, and will run as close to Sydney as possible in a race.

The other individual with potential to compete here in my opinion, is Abby Steiner. Abby is also in another event, the 200 meters, but she has run enough relay legs to be known as a serious competitor over 400 meters. And her sprinting statistics are closer to Marita Koch’s, than any other runner in the 400 meters today! She too is young as she will be 23 years old during the ’23 season. So, as with Naser, Abby could be one of the advantages that Sydney has in her pursuit of the 400 record. Luckily for Sydney, most of her primary competition are all young enough to give the chase a good 5 or 6 year run. I choose that time frame, because if the record is going to be broken, that period of time will find them all in their prime ages to achieve such a feat! Just saying.

So, it appears that 2023 will be, among other things, the season that Sydney begins her pursuit of 47.60. This reminds me of when Michael Johnson was openly in pursuit of Butch Reynold’s 43.29 in his final season. For the record, he ended up running and claiming the record with his 43.18 sec World Championship victory in Seville in 1999. Will Sydney be as successful? I’m going to say that it will take more than one season for Sydney to get it, if indeed she is able to get the record. A 47.60 out of the blocks is not nearly as easy as many seem to think. Coming out of Covid, it took Sydney a couple of seasons to get to where she is today in the hurdles. The open 400 is a bit different than the hurdles even though they are the same distance in length. The rhythm of the events is very different. And if Sydney is going to continue to run the hurdles while she is in pursuit of the 400, she is going to have to learn how to switch between “rhythms” as she attempts to master the open event.

Of course, given there are some very competitive individuals that have teh potential to push her, they could bring out the best in each other. Given what they’ve all done already, ANYTHING can happen. And at the end of the say, that’s the excitement of sport. So, I wish good luck to Sydney and Bobby. Because they’re embarking in search of something great. If they get this record. If they have TWO of the most Beamonesque marks in the sport. THAT will be greatness.

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One Response to “Sydney’s Mission, Should She Accept It”

  1. Waynebo says:

    Another great article coach! We also need to remember that MJ spent a whole decade chasing Butch’s record even as he was head & shoulders above all other 400m runners. So I am very excited to see Sydney chase that 47.60 because I believe she is the only woman on the planet who can legitimately make a serious run at it. As far as Naser’s 48.14, let’s just say after watching the way she ran that, I was not even a little bit surprised that she ended up getting a “time out”.

    Thanks for reminding us to be patient in our excitement. It will be interesting to see where she is now in the open 400. I would expect her to start close to 49-flat and then improve as she masters the nuances of her race pattern. I also expect that Kersee will have her running some 200’s or even 100’s to work on her speed. That should be very fun to watch because she is simply a beast of an athlete. Just for the fun of it I’m gonna predict she can go 21.75 / 10.90. I would not be surprised to see her go faster than that in the 200, but I’ll calm down and stick to those numbers.

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