Updated: August 5, 2021 6:44:39 am
“[Dalilah] Muhammad was out there like there was no catching her. I was like even if I wanted to catch up with her, I probably couldn’t.” That was Sydney McLaughlin five years ago about the US qualifying trials to make it to the Rio Olympics.
On Wednesday in Tokyo, the 400m hurdles defending champion Muhammad was out there again. The only difference, McLaughlin wasn’t thinking there was no catching her. First, at the halfway mark, she went past Dutchwoman Femke Bol, who too ran a terrific race, and caught up with Muhammad at the last hurdle before bursting past for the final stretch. Muhammad had run the fastest race of her life but McLaughlin, who as a teenager chose “flying” over “invisibility”, showed why it was her choice of the superpower as she blurred to a world record time. As she sat on her haunches with a curiously blank expression on her face, Muhammad, who contracted Covid earlier this year, would lean over to tap her back in congratulation.
To understand the significance of McLaughlin’s achievement, one must go back to the day of that qualification trials five years ago. She woke up in the morning and stared at the wall in panic. “Oh gosh, I have to race today,” she would share in a documentary by FloTrack. When she reached the track, things turned eerier. “Everybody was warming up and I thought I can’t do it.” She was 16. “Everyone was so grown up.”
She dialled her father and broke down. “Dad, I don’t want to run. I will go in four years’ time, I promise.” Her father coaxed her to run that day and leave the rest for later. She would start her run but, in a blink, realise Muhammad was too far out and by the ninth hurdle – 11 in all – was with the final three runners. “I was thinking somebody is not going to make it. I need to push harder and hold my form.”
And she did exactly that to qualify but there was no joy. “I don’t know whether I was done or was I more scared that I made the team. I was like, ‘Oh god, oh god’”.
That uneasiness stayed through her at Rio where she would be eliminated in the semifinals. She didn’t like staying at the Games Village and she would be in her room alone and wonder what she was doing there. The fierce competitive spirit in the runners shook her being. “It messes with your head. That, for some people, this is what they live for; I wasn’t up for it.”
She decided to change her mindset, just like she did when she was 7 and ran in a school race for a chocolate bar. She didn’t want to run but her parents promised a candy and she won that 100m. She liked her choco bar, she liked the pride she saw in her parents’ eyes.
Muhammad’s turnaround was similarly triggered by a qualification loss in the first round. Her’s was for London 2012 and she went into it thinking it was the last competitive race of her life. But when she lost, Muhammad, who remembers adoring that high of running from the age of three, found it didn’t sit well with her. “That loss was very uneasy. I decided that moment that no way was this going to be my last race,” she told Global Sports Channel. She knew she was “too good to quit” and would be able to later verbalise to herself what she felt: “It’s my calling”. She would throw herself into the training challenges and tell herself every morning that “this is for Olympics.”
“Being a Muslim, being an African-American woman, you feel at times there are so many things fighting against you at times, it was nice to feel one at that moment. Race, religion doesn’t matter at that moment,” Muhammad tells in an Arcdocs documentary on her about the moment she qualified for Rio. “You are all just competing to bring a medal back for USA.” She would go on to triumph in Rio.
She has also talked about what religion means to her. “Being a Muslim especially, you have to have a tough skin to fight against the negativity that is thrown at you on a daily basis. For me, it’s to try to find confidence and that’s what for me being a Muslim and a woman is. And I use it. No one can take away my gold medal from me.”
A steadfast practitioner of Ramadan in her childhood, a habit that tapered off in her professional years, she kept the fast last year. Just as another challenge. Muhammad’s biggest Ramadan challenge came during drug testing. “When you are not drinking water and you had to urinate. That was tough!”
This year, she overcame the Covid setback and in the qualification trials was beaten by McLaughlin, who couldn’t believe what she had done. Even as she sat with her hands closed over her mouth, Muhammad leaned over to tap her on the back. Just as she would do in Tokyo.
Two graceful athletes, both shaped by setbacks, one who cried and was scared that she had qualified for the last Olympics, and another who overcame challenges of being a Black woman and Muslim, to be where they are: out in Tokyo, arms over each other, with gold and silver around their necks.
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