We continue our countdown to the World Athletics Awards 2021 on 1 December by taking a closer look at the achievements of the five women and five men who have this week been confirmed as the finalists for the Athlete of the Year awards.
Ever since she first emerged as a high school phenomenon seven years ago, Sydney McLaughlin has been touted as a future star of the sport. And in 2021, with two world records and an Olympic gold, the 400m hurdler fulfilled her promise.
She had experienced the Olympic stage as a teenager back in 2016, reaching the semifinals less than two weeks after her 17th birthday. But this time, having established herself as one of the best athletes in the world, McLaughlin took a far more calculated approach to the Olympics, knowing it was her moment to shine.
She spent the first half of the season focused on the sprint hurdles and honing her speed. She set four PBs across the span of five races, reducing it to 12.65 – a time that would have been sufficient to advance to the Olympic final.
From June onwards, McLaughlin switched to her specialist event, the 400m hurdles, and won at the Continental Tour Bronze meeting in Nashville with 52.83 – the fastest season-opening time in the history of the event.
She didn’t race again until the US Trials 19 days later, where she easily advanced through the rounds, running 54.07 in her heat and 53.03 in her semifinal, setting up yet another mouth-watering clash between her and world and Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad.
In two of their clashes in 2019 – the US Championships and World Championships – Muhammad won in world record time. But this time it was McLaughlin who emerged victorious, winning the US Olympic Trials in 51.90, breaking Muhammad’s world record and becoming the first woman to beat 52 seconds for the discipline.
“It's one of those moments that you dream about and think about when you’re going to be able to put it together,” she said after the race. “I knew, from the moment I woke up today, it was going to be a great day. Afterwards there was a real ‘I did it’ moment and I’m going to cherish this for the rest of my life.”
The next time the duo met was at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which played out in similar fashion to the US Trials – only much quicker. In an enthralling duel, McLaughlin held off her compatriot to win gold in a stunning 51.46 – faster than the world records for the 400m flat up to 1970.
“I'm absolutely delighted,” McLaughlin said. “It was a great race. I'm just grateful to be out here celebrating that extraordinary race and representing my country.”
Three days later, McLaughlin was back on track for the 4x400m. Teaming up with Muhammad, 800m winner Athing Mu and sprint legend Allyson Felix, the US quartet claimed gold in 3:16.85 – the fifth-fastest time in history and the quickest in the world since 1993.
Still aged just 22, there’s plenty more than McLaughlin wants to accomplish.
“It's an honour (to be the fastest 400m hurdler ever),” she said. “So many amazing women have come before me and will come after me. I'm excited for what the future holds. I just want to leave my mark and be part of such an amazing sport, because the glory isn't forever.”
He may not have improved on his own world record this year, but in many ways Mondo Duplantis’s 2021 season was his best yet.
The Swedish pole vaulter – winner of the Male World Athlete of the Year award in 2020 – earned his first senior global title when winning Olympic gold in Tokyo. He also notched up 15 victories and 14 six-metre clearances between January and September, setting world-leading marks of 6.10m indoors and outdoors.
Fittingly, his season started and ended with six-metre vaults. His first came in Dusseldorf (6.01m), which was followed six days later by a 6.03m win in Rouen. After clearing a world-leading 6.10m in Belgrade, he won the European indoor title in Torun with a championship record of 6.05m.
His outdoor season really got going at the Continental Tour Gold meeting in Hengelo, where he sailed over a world-leading meeting record of 6.10m to match his indoor season’s best height. From there until Tokyo, he was undefeated and cleared six metres in every competition, winning in Karlstad (6.00m), Oslo (6.01m) and Stockholm (6.02m).
Despite the pressure that comes with being a gold medal favourite at an Olympic Games, Duplantis kept his cool in Tokyo and cleared all of his heights with his first attempt, starting at 5.55m and then progressing to 5.80m, 5.92m and 5.97m before wrapping up the competition with a winning height of 6.02m.
“The world record would have been nice and I felt like I was close but I won the Olympics so I’m not going to sit here and complain about it too much,” said Duplantis, who attempted a world record height of 6.19m at 12 of his competitions in 2021. “It’s a surreal feeling – winning Olympic gold is something that I have wanted for so long and I finally did it.”
He suffered a rare – but understandable – defeat in his first competition after Tokyo, finishing fourth in Lausanne, but then returned to winning ways for his final three competitions of the year, securing victories at the Wanda Diamond League meetings in Paris (6.01m), Brussels (6.05m) and at the final in Zurich (6.06m).
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved this sport so much and I always believed that it would take me to some great places,” he said. “This sport has given me so much. I can never repay it.”