An Olympian Who Is ‘Running From Fear to Faith’ in God

Olympian Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone is pictured competing in her opening heat in the 400-meter hurdles during the World Athletics Championships July 19-22, 2022, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. The athlete, now 24, a 2017 graduate of Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, N.J., has written a memoir, “Far Beyond Gold: Running From Fear to Faith,” about learning to prioritize her goals and lean into her faith. (OSV News photo/Wikipedia via Archdiocese of Newark)

By Kelly Nicholaides

(OSV News) — Leaning into a sprinter’s stance while watching the 2008 Olympics, 8-year-old Sydney McLaughlin visualized her future. Fast forward eight years. The junior at Union Catholic High School earned a spot on the Women’s USA Track and Field Team.

Riddled with anxiety, fear, and self-doubt, she failed to earn a medal in the 400-meter hurdle at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but she overcame adversity and won the gold twice four years later.

Over the years, the 2017 Union Catholic graduate grew up, learned to prioritize her goals, and leaned into her faith, she reveals in her new memoir, “Far Beyond Gold: Running From Fear to Faith.”

She was surrounded by experienced athletes, who had access to world-class coaching, big-time sponsors, strict diets and meticulous workout routines. The 16-year-old, 5′ 9″ sprinter and hurdler from Dunellen, New Jersey, had none of that.

She munched on Twizzlers, and McDonald’s hamburgers and chicken nuggets. She was guided by Union Catholic High School coaches in Scotch Plains and her father Will’s no-pressure encouragement. She became the 2020 Tokyo Olympic champion, setting a record for the games, and in 2022, the world champion with a world record time of 50.68 seconds.

“Writing this book has really helped me to connect the dots between who I was before and who I am now. For a very long time, I ran from my difficulties,” the 24-year-old McLaughlin-Levrone told Jersey Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark.

“I tried to escape from my trials by chasing happiness in things that were not benefiting me and found myself anxious, depressed, frustrated and lonely,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much better my life and career would be if I just put my trust in Him, and once I did, I found happiness and strength. I’ve lived through a lot of incredible moments, but it’s only now that I have Christ as my cornerstone that I am really living.”

Faith was reserved for Sunday Mass in a sort of ritualistic way. She kept it separate from relationships, athletics, school and more. Since intertwining God into every aspect of her life, McLaughlin-Levrone seems to have hit her stride personally and professionally.

Union Catholic Track Head Coach Mike McCabe and Assistant Coach Luiz Cartagena guided her during her pivotal years as an athlete.

“Coach McCabe always had a plan of how we would strive towards our goals,” McLaughlin-Levrone reflected. “He was also very understanding of how nervous I was at such a young age, so I appreciated how he handled a lot of those situations. Coach Luiz, as a hurdle coach, really made me love the hurdles and want to continue to pursue them. That was my first introduction to hurdle drills and I really loved working on my technique.”

Following the 2016 Olympics, she took a break from track for two and a half years. She participated in soccer, basketball and dance, which helped improve her track performance by strengthening her legs and core and instilling rhythm to balance speed with leaps and develop stability, power, and coordination.

“Sydney’s natural ability, intelligence, work ethic, and humility are some of her greatest strengths that assist with the pressure of being a high-level athlete,” Coach McCabe said. “Sydney always continued to improve to try and win each race that she competed in. We did our best to provide a supportive environment with a solid training plan — a plan that included short- and long-term goals. I feel as though the supportive environment takes precedence over a training plan.”

Her success and fame have had a monumental impact on Union Catholic, shining a spotlight on its commitment to making students become all God calls them to be, noted Mercy Sister Percylee Hart, Union Catholic’s principal.

“Sydney’s rise from a national star, captivating the country by becoming a high school Olympian during her days at Union Catholic, to her breathtaking double gold medal performance at the Olympics in Tokyo have put Union Catholic on the map worldwide,” Sister Percylee said. “She is a great ambassador for our school and such a positive role model for everyone. Sydney’s success has shown that everything is possible at Union Catholic, especially when you work hard. Sydney represents everything that makes Union Catholic such a special and unique place to grow your gifts and talents.”

Coming from a family of runners, McLaughlin used to balance and bounce from foot to foot on her father’s hands when she was a baby. She completed her first 100-meter dash at age 6. As an accomplished athlete, one of the fastest women in the world tunes out to focus on the 14-15 steps between hurdles without losing balance or velocity. The length demands extraordinary endurance, speed and technique. Fractions of a second are the difference between winning and losing, falling short, or breaking records.

By the time she got to Kentucky University, McLaughlin-Levrone broke the collegiate record in the 400-meter hurdles, running 52.75. She turned pro, garnering a major sneaker sponsorship and traveling to world championships and Diamond League events, earning 13 national titles, and landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Her advice to aspiring track stars is to work at their own pace and use a support system to stay grounded. “There will always be people moving faster and slower than you, and if you’re not focused on your own lane, you could miss what’s right in front of you,” McLaughlin-Levrone said.

She credits her faith and support system for helping her gain the confidence and strength to push past her fears during her formative years. “I realized that the only thing holding me back was me, and I was determined not to let that happen anymore,” she said.

Bursting onto the track and field scene at Union Catholic and known as the “fast girl,” McLaughlin-Levrone turned her focus from being a winner to honing technique and strategy and staying in optimal shape in her 20s. As one of the fastest women in the world, she broke the 51-second barrier in the 400-meter hurdles in the 2022 World Championships.

“My focus right now is just staying healthy — doing all the little things that may be, that I took for granted in the past. Nutrition is so important, sleep is essential, and how you recover your body is what makes or breaks an athlete at the highest level,” she said.

Social media is key to developing her brand. McLaughlin-Levrone has over 1 million Instagram followers, where she promotes her faith, her family and the sneaker brand that sponsors her. “I hope when people look at my social media, they see someone who loves the Lord Jesus and is using the platform and gifts that he’s given me to point the glory back to him,” she said.

She declines to speculate on her future, including participating in the 2024 Olympics following a knee injury last year.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to be at peace with the uncertainty. I have goals for the year — some I’ve shared with the world, and some I’m keeping close to my chest,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “But the only thing I’m certain of is that God has a purpose for me that is bigger than I can comprehend. All I can do is continue to work hard and enjoy the process, regardless of where he takes me.”

When she ages out of professional sports, McLaughlin-Levrone says she wants to mentor children.

“Being thrust into the spotlight at such a young age like I was, I’ve gained a lot of wisdom and learned a lot of lessons throughout the years. I would love to share that knowledge with the next generation.”