Throughout these Olympics, United States track and field athletes have talked about their preparation. The depth of their team. The speed of the running surface at Olympic Stadium.
The U.S. women have won several gold medals, including one that featured a world-record performance by Sydney McLaughlin and another that featured a dominating victory by Athing Mu.
But going into Thursday’s evening session — when Michael Norman was scheduled to run the 400 meters — U.S. men’s sprinters, middle-distance and long-distance runners had failed to win gold.
The frustration continued when the U.S. men’s 400-meter relay team finished sixth in its heat and failed to qualify for the final. Minutes later, Grant Holloway, the reigning world champion in the 110 hurdles, finished second.
Ryan Crouser won his second consecutive gold medal in the shot put, but the U.S. men have otherwise been left in the starting blocks.
On Thursday, for example, Trayvon Bromell, 100-meter silver medalist Fred Kerley, Ronnie Baker and Cravon Gillespie could not reach the final in the 400-meter relay.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” Kerley said.
“There’s no excuses,” Baker said.
Gillespie acknowledged the U.S. team is expected to perform better.
“There’s definitely a lot of expectations going in here,” Gillespie said. “But at the end of the day we’re professionals and this is what we’re here to do…. You have to go out there and you have to perform.
“You can’t just expect them to just hand you the medal.”
After Hansle Parchment finished ahead of him to win the gold medal, Holloway sounded surprised the U.S. men were devoid of gold other than Crouser’s.
“It’s just part of the highs and lows of athletics,” he said.
The Games have so far been a high for McLaughlin. Five years ago, she was a first-time Olympian, a teenager just getting a feel for the international spotlight.
Now she is taking command of the Olympic and global stage.
McLaughlin gave a hint of what was coming in June when she ran a world-record time in the 400-meter hurdles during the U.S. Olympic trials.
On Wednesday, she won her first gold medal and set a world record, finishing in 51.46 seconds to edge American Dalilah Muhammad in the second consecutive scintillating 400-meter final of these Games. Teammate Anna Cockrell was disqualified for a lane violation.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” McLaughlin, who will turn 22 on Saturday, said of winning the gold medal.
Muhammad, 31, also broke the previous world record in 51.58 seconds.
“To come home with silver after breaking a world record, it could be mixed emotions,” Muhammad said. “But right now, I truly don’t feel that way — I’m truly proud of it, and I hope all the people back home are too.”
The women’s race harked back to Tuesday’s men’s 400-meter hurdles final, when Karsten Warholm of Norway set a world record and silver medalist Rai Benjamin of the United States also finished faster than the previous mark.
Muhammad prepared for another blazing race by the women: “Just thinking about what might happen in our race was becoming overwhelming.”
McLaughlin also felt the buzz.
“It definitely sparked a little bit of energy and adrenaline for sure,” she said. “I saw the time and I was just amazed but not surprised.
“It’s really great competition, and it’s cool to be part of this next generation of athletes pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Benjamin did that Tuesday, but American men have otherwise struggled.
Mu became the first American woman to win the 800-meter gold medal since Madeline Manning in 1968. Before that, Valarie Allman won a gold medal in the discus and Raven Saunders won silver in the shot put. Long jumper Brittney Reese and 200-meter runner Gabrielle Thomas won silver medals, and 800-meter runner Raevyn Rogers earned bronze. Courtney Frerichs added to the medal count Wednesday by earning a silver medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
“It’s been really cool, just to be part of this group of women,” McLaughlin said. “Not just in our event but all events, we’re really seeing that a lot of things are possible that weren’t before, or we didn’t think were possible.
“So just having each other, seeing each other perform at our highest, it definitely motivates us to want to be the best that we can be.”
McLaughlin and Mu are regarded as athletes capable of following in the footsteps of Allyson Felix, a five-time Olympian and six-time gold medalist competing in her final Olympics.
Last summer, McLaughlin switched coaches, joining Bob Kersee, who has coached numerous current and former Olympians, including Felix.
“Bobby’s numbers don’t lie,” McLaughlin said. “When he says you can do something, you can do it.”
Part of McLaughlin’s training included shorter hurdles races. In one 60-meter event, McLaughlin hurdled with her nondominant leg to help train her for situations that might arise during a longer race. She finished last.
“Sometimes, you have to lose in order to win,” she said. “Coming in last was probably the best thing that could ever happen to me, just understanding there’s a bigger picture.”
When Muhammad won the 400-meter hurdles in world-record time at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar, McLaughlin finished second in a time that also eclipsed the previous record. Then, at the Olympic trials, she made the record her own, finishing in 51.90.
Could McLaughlin and Muhammad run as fast without the other?
“That’s really just iron sharpening iron,” McLaughlin said. “You need somebody who’s going to push you to be your best.”
Based on McLaughlin’s performance in the trials, the condition of the Olympic Stadium track, and the times posted by the men in their final, Muhammad anticipated that a world-record time would be necessary to win a gold medal.
On Wednesday, Muhammad lined up in lane seven, McLaughlin in lane four. When the race started, Muhammad pushed the pace.
“Being in the outside lane, that was one of the few cards I could play,” she said. “I knew the speed was there, so why not.”
By the time they got through nine hurdles, Muhammad had a slight lead. And she knew what was coming.
“I definitely know Sydney is going to show up,” she said.
McLaughlin made her move coming off the 10th and final hurdle. The women had 40 meters left to the finish line.
“You know it’s going to come down to the last 40 meters and you have to be prepared,” McLaughlin said.
That meant accelerating over the final hurdle, and then charging to and dipping at the finish line.
After the race, McLaughlin and Muhammad embraced.
They will race again. And the world record is almost certain to fall again as they and other runners push the boundaries.
“Anything’s possible,” McLaughlin said. “You have such an amazing field of women, and I just think the more that we race each other anything is possible.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.