Of course the champion would blast through the first turn. Of course the challenger would gain momentum through the second half. Of course it would come down to the final steps. Of course there would be a new world record. And of course Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin would live up to the hype, the anticipation and the moment in the women's Olympic 400-meter hurdles final.
The race for gold in Tokyo actually started two years ago, at the 2019 world championships, when Muhammad held off a furiously charging McLaughlin to win and lower her own world record. That was when the potential McLaughlin had shown as a high school superstar and 16-year-old Rio Olympian turned into a threat to Muhammad's reign. The buildup continued at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, when McLaughlin took down Muhammad, who was recovering from injuries and COVID-19, and snatched Muhammad's world record.
Coming into Tokyo, it was anybody's race. Muhammad was at full strength. McLaughlin was serious as she was introduced for the TV cameras and stood at the starting line, no smiles or waves, just a glare of determination. The drama of two Americans dueling each other, the 21-year-old McLaughlin trying to seize the crown from the 31-year-old defending Olympic champion, made this the marquee race of the Games.
When it was over, a page had turned. Not only for the event, but into a new chapter of American track and field stars led by women athletes. McLaughlin overtook Muhammad in the final ten meters and won the gold medal, lowering her world record to 51.46. Muhammad was second in 51.58, her fastest time ever, a time that would have been a world record on any other day. Femke Bol of the Netherlands took bronze in 52.03.
Muhammad's hallmarks these past few years have been explosive starts and technical precision. Her lean, willowy frame seems to float rather than jump over the barriers. McLaughlin is a more powerful runner, with explosive closing speed, who needed to master the finer details of an event where one stutter-step can be the difference between victory and defeat.
Earlier this year, McLaughlin took the risky Olympic-year step of switching coaches, to Bobby Kersee, who has trained legends like Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner and Allyson Felix. McLaughlin developed the skill to hurdle off either leg, which allowed her to eliminate choppy steps and navigate curves better. If she could stay within striking distance, nobody could outrun her at the end.
The race unfurled according to type. Muhammad led the field through all ten hurdles; McLaughlin blasted through the second curve and trailed Muhammad by a stride through hurdles nine and ten. After the final jump, McLaughlin drew even with Muhammad, then muscled past her in the final seven strides. She won by a step that almost seemed inevitable to fans who had watched her progress these past few years -- and to McLaughlin herself.
"I saw Dalilah ahead of me with one to go," McLaughlin said. "I just thought, 'Run your race.'"
"The race doesn't really start until hurdle seven. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had," she said. "It's just about trusting your training, trusting your coach, and that will get you all the way around the track."
It certainly did not seem inevitable to a champion like Muhammad. "After the ninth hurdle, I thought, 'I'm about to win this,'" she said. "That was not the case."
Despite their ferocious battles on the track, McLaughlin and Muhammad are warm and complimentary off it, perhaps because they bring the best out of each other. They embraced after the race, and McLaughlin finally cracked a brief smile. In Rio, where McLaughlin was a high school kid who didn't make it past the semifinals, Muhammad won gold in 53.13 -- which would have been fifth in Tokyo. This was the fourth championship final in which they faced off and set a new world record.
"Every question is going to be, 'Am I happy or am I unhappy with silver?" Muhammad said. "But that's not how I feel at all. I've had an amazing year and to finish with 51.5, shattering my personal best, is absolutely amazing."
"All three of our times would have won any Olympics, any other year," she said. "I'm so proud to be part of that history and even more proud of my teammate Sydney. I'm just happy it's a one-two final for USA, and today I'm happy with second."
McLaughlin is now one of the new faces of American track and field, along with 19-year-old Athing Mu, who won gold in the 800-meter; Gabby Thomas, who took bronze in the 200-meter; and the silver medalist shot putter Raven Saunders. Noah Lyles might join them if he can win the men's 200-meter. With the great Allyson Felix competing in her fifth and final Olympics, McLaughlin is one of the women who will carry the sport forward as the world championships come to Hayward Field in Oregon in 2022.
Muhammad should be at the world championships, too, ready to resume the rivalry that captivated the Tokyo Games. And McLaughlin will be ready to push the boundaries of her sport even further.
"In terms of what's possible, I don't think there is such thing as a true perfect race," McLaughlin said. "I think there's always more to improve upon, and every time we step on the track, I think that's our goal. I think that anything is possible. You have such an amazing field of women. The more we race each other, anything is possible. It's completely limitless."