In recent months, she fell ill with mononucleosis, her mother suffered a heart attack, and she underwent a nervous breakdown before a major qualifying track competition.
So when she became the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic track and field team on July 10, the victory was extra sweet.
What gets 16-year-old McLaughlin through the stress and pressure that inevitably comes with competing with some of the world’s top athletes? Her Christian faith.
“Something like track is a very mental sport,” she told CNA during a press teleconference, “there’s a lot of pressure and there’s a lot of expectation put on you.”
“Sticking to what I know and believing that everything I’ve been given comes from God definitely played a big role for me,” she said.
On July 10, McLaughlin finished third in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S trials in Oregon. That made her the youngest member on the U.S. track and field team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil next month.
Originally from Dunellen, New Jersey, McLaughlin attends Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains.
As a Christian, the young Olympian explained that her faith in God has helped her throughout the journey.
She described the pressure and expectations leading up to the qualifying Olympic trials as much more than a typical meet.
“It became overwhelming at one point,” she said.
It’s a competition with the best of the best, added her father, Willie McLaughlin. He said the experience was similar for him.
In 1984, he qualified for the 400-meter semifinals at the Olympic trials but failed to make the Olympic team.
“Running the Olympic trials was the single most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life. Hands down.”
McLaughlin’s mother was also a runner and her older brother, Taylor McLaughlin, currently competes in the 400-meter hurdles for Michigan University.
The young athlete said that she only found the courage to compete with the help of her family and coaches. Despite panicking at the Olympic trials and nearly turning back, McLaughlin ended up setting a world junior record at 54.14 seconds.
The fact that the trials were at night made her think about the big race all day. To get on the line at the first race and go from round to round, somehow making the team, “definitely showed this is God’s plan for me.”
She sealed her place on the U.S. Olympic team earlier than she and her family anticipated.
The Olympics “has always been on my mind but not at the age of 16,” she said.
Her father agreed that it was something they always talked about, but had not expected so quickly.
“We knew there was an outside chance of her making it, you know things happening the way they did, she ended up getting on the team,” he said, “We didn’t think it would be this soon.”
Now, her parents are also figuring out plans to get to Rio, in order to see their daughter fulfill a dream they had always envisioned.
McLaughlin said she includes prayer in her warm-up before every meet and then goes out there and does what she knows she can, “regardless of what happens.”
The fact that there are always more races to run and a “chance to do it better” motivates her to keep going.
After the trials, McLaughlin attended the ESPY Awards and received an award for being named the Gatorade National High School Female Athlete of the Year. She gave a speech and talked about the obstacles she had faced throughout the previous year.
A busload of people from Union Catholic High School was at the airport in New Jersey ready to welcome her back home.
On August 7, McLaughlin will turn 17. She said she is going to miss the Opening Ceremonies to celebrate with her family and friends.
Then, she will fly to the Olympics with her lucky blanket, a sparkly manicure, and the faith that whatever happens, it will be according to God’s plan.
In the fall, McLaughlin will return to school for her senior year. Her goal is to build up a different school club: juggling.
“I’m going to focus on that a lot this year, try to get more members, hopefully pull a squad together so we can perform at the pep rally.”
Only then, she will be an Olympian juggling on a unicycle.