Sydney McLaughlin Has a New Coach, Donavan Brazier Loves the Treadmill & More from the NBIGP Press Conference

By Jonathan Gault
February 12, 2021

The biggest meet of the 2021 US indoor track season is less than 24 hours away, and stars from around the globe have assembled in Staten Island for Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. If you haven’t read our full meet preview, you need to do so now as the fields are incredible: LRC NBIGP Preview: The Best US Indoor Meet Of 2021 Season Is Saturday.

While some of the stars, such as sprinter Trayvon Bromell and middle-distance standout Bryce Hoppel, have already proven their fitness in 2021, the NBIGP will serve as the season opener for several big names. 800-meter world champion Donavan Brazier, who missed his planned season opener two weeks ago due to close contact with a COVID positive, will race in his specialty event for the first time in almost six months. Sydney McLaughlin has been away from even longer; her appearance in the 60-meter hurdles on Saturday will be her first race since October 2019 — a span of 496 days.

Brazier and McLaughlin were among the featured athletes in today’s pre-meet press conference. Updates on both athletes, plus Noah Lyles and Rai Benjamin, below.

1) Sydney McLaughlin has a new coach — she is now training with Allyson Felix under Bobby Kersee

New Balance Grand Prix / Kevin Morris

Sydney McLaughlin has spent most of her career being compared to Allyson Felix. Both were outrageously talented high schoolers, with Felix qualifying for Worlds and signing a deal with adidas following her senior year in 2003 and McLaughlin making it to the 2016 Olympics the summer after her junior year. Due to her unprecedented medal record, looks, and poised, drama-free disposition with the media, Felix has been the face of women’s track & field in the US for over a decade, a position many believed McLaughlin, who turned professional in 2018, would one day occupy. When McLaughlin chose an agent, she picked Felix’s brother, Wes.

Now the two have an even closer bond as training partners. McLaughlin revealed today that she has been working with Felix’s longtime coach Bobby Kersee since last summer, after parting ways with Joanna Hayes, the 2004 Olympic 100 hurdles champ who coached McLaughlin to a silver medal at Worlds and the third-fastest time in history in the 400 hurdles (52.23) in her first professional season in 2019.

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“I’d seen Bobby out at the track a couple times when we were [training] at UCLA,” McLaughlin says. “He was helping for a while, just with the hurdling technique, and I think the chemistry kind of clicked. We felt that it was a good decision, with the Olympics being postponed, if I was to want to switch coaches, that that was the year to do it.”

Kersee, the husband of track & field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee, coached Hayes during her professional career. While Hayes did run the 400 hurdles during her career, making two World Championship teams in the event, she was primarily a 100 hurdler; McLaughlin cited Kersee’s technical knowledge of the event as one of the things that appealed to him about her.

“In terms of my race and really breaking it down, as someone who ran the 400 hurdles, Bobby has a lot of knowledge,” McLaughlin says.

At the 2019 World Championship final, McLaughlin finished just .06 behind Dalilah Muhammad, who set a world record of 52.16. She believes some of the changes she’s made under Kersee could be the difference in Tokyo.

“Overall just having a race plan, understanding how many steps between the hurdles, working on form, working on the start,” McLaughlin says. “Things that, in the past, I really haven’t done as much as just doing the training and going out and running and seeing what happens. So we’ve really broken down the race. Not so much my race, but the 400 hurdles in general and just understanding step patterns and takeoff and landing things — the little details that, in the past, I maybe haven’t focused much on.”

Kersee is McLaughlin’s fourth coach in four years. She spent 2017, her final year as a high schooler, training under Union Catholic High School coach Mike McCabe. In 2018, her lone year as a collegian, she trained under Edrick Floreal at the University of Kentucky. She spent 2019 with Hayes, and made the switch to Kersee last summer, which is why, she says, she didn’t race at all in 2020.

“I didn’t feel comfortable racing in between that process,” McLaughlin says.

McLaughlin says she runs most of her workouts with Felix now, though they will train separately during McLaughlin’s hurdle-specific days.

“The core of our training is definitely the same,” McLaughlin says.

2) Donavan Brazier eager to make 2021 debut after COVID-enforced quarantine in Arkansas

New Balance Grand Prix / Kevin Morris

The start to Donavan Brazier’s 2021 season has not exactly gone to plan. He was supposed to open up with a 600 at the American Track League meet in Fayetteville, Ark., on January 31, which would offer a nice gauge considering he opened up his 2019 and 2020 seasons at the same distance. Instead, he had to scratch from the meet after he was exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19. To make things worse, he had to quarantine inside his Arkansas hotel room for another five days.

“We had to get a little creative,” Brazier says. “I wasn’t able to hit the weight room, I wasn’t able to go to the treadmills — I love doing treadmill running for most of my runs. So I was stuck to being inside the hotel room, just trying to get core, just trying to do all the plyometric work I could possibly do. And then I was in Arkansas, of all places, too, so I was stuck with the cold weather. With the limited amount of clothes and limited amount of space I had, I guess I made do.”

Hold on. Brazier, who famously doesn’t do many “long” runs anyway — he said today his longest ever is 8.4 miles, and that’s only because he and training partner Eric Jenkins got lost in Phoenix — “loves” running on the treadmill?

“Yeah, if I have to crank out a 45-minute run, I’d like to go on the treadmill if the opportunity was there,” Brazier says.

Okay. Just checking.

I also asked Brazier if he wished he were racing Bryce Hoppel, who came just .15 shy of Brazier’s American record two weeks ago, in tomorrow’s meet. Brazier is entered in the 800, Hoppel in the 1000.

“In the 1000?,” Brazier says. “I’m not too sure, but I’ve never really run a great 1000. I’m not really too into the 1000. The 800, possibly, just to see and gauge where I’m at. But Erik [Sowinski, who ran 1:45 in Arkansas] was in the race too that [Hoppel] was in two weeks ago, so there are a lot of good guys to race and I still think it will be a fast field. But I don’t think I’m really itching to race anybody or not race anybody this early in the season. Because sometimes indoors can be like fool’s gold. You’ve just gotta make sure it’s a stepping stone to outdoors. I’m mainly focused on that.”

LRC What About The Sport? Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Donavan Brazier & Bryce Hoppel Raced Each Other Once This Season? Jonathan Gault takes a look at how it’s possible that the two 800m stars, who will be at the same meet three times in a four-week span, including Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, won’t face each other this winter.

3) Noah Lyles may stay closer to home in the lead up to the Olympics

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Last year, Lyles traveled to Europe to compete in meets in Monaco and Hungary, clocking a world-leading 19.76 for 200 meters in the former. In 2021, however, Lyles says he may not be traveling as much ahead of the Olympics in Tokyo.

“Our thought for the rest of the year is, as much as we can stay in the US and as much as we can stay close to home is preferably how we would like it,” Lyles says.

Seven of the 14 Diamond League meets this year will be held prior to the Olympics, none in the United States (the Pre Classic will be held on August 21, after the Olympics concludes).

“My coach was even saying as we get closer, if he needs to, we’ll put a track meet in Clermont (Lyles’ training base in Florida) every other week because we definitely have the talent in Florida to be able to get a fast enough time,” Lyles says. “I’ve run 19 seconds (for 200) on our Clermont track and I’ve run 9 seconds (for 100) on our Clermont track. I don’t see a problem with getting a fast enough time to qualify for the Olympics and the Olympic Trials in Florida.”

4) Rai Benjamin says to expect fireworks in the 400 hurdles in 2021

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2019 400 hurdles World Championship silver medalist Rai Benjamin was one of the notable American athletes who competed sparingly in 2020; outdoors, his only competitions came at a pair of small meets in Texas in July. Benjamin says he considered going to Europe to compete, but at the time felt he didn’t have enough information — particularly when it came to the long-term effects of the coronavirus — to make it worth traveling overseas in a non-championship year.

“We were really skeptical as a group and we didn’t want to put anyone at danger of contracting the virus and possibly dying,” Benjamin says. “Because when it first began, everyone was scared out of our minds and we just simply didn’t know how the virus worked. Traveling overseas didn’t seem too enticing to risk possibly being sick and jeopardizing the next year.”

Benjamin says that after seeing other professional sports like the NBA conduct events safely during COVID, he feels more comfortable competing now. And he is looking to make the most of it. His race against training partner Michael Norman in the 400 on Saturday should be the most hotly-contested sprint event of the night, with Benjamin only sort of joking that it could take 20.2 for the first lap to get the lead at the bell.

Looking ahead to outdoors and Benjamin’s specialty, the 400 hurdles, he believes this year’s Olympic final could be the race everyone has been waiting for. Benjamin (46.98 pb) is only one of four men in history to have broken 47 seconds in the event, and two of the other three — Karsten Warholm (46.87) and Abderrahman Samba (46.98) — are competing right now.

There was optimism, after Warholm and Benjamin both broke 47 in the 2019 Diamond League final, that that year’s World Championship final could produce the greatest 400 hurdles of all time — a world record and three sub-47 clockings. But, whether due to the long season or, in the case of Samba, injury, the race somewhat fizzled, with Warholm running 47.42 for the win to Benjamin’s 47.66 and Samba’s 48.03. Benjamin is hoping the Olympic final in Tokyo will prove more memorable.

“Worlds was definitely great, but all three of us — me, Samba, and Karsten — we weren’t at our best,” Benjamin says. “And it was exciting to see, but that oomph wasn’t there that everyone was looking for. So hopefully in Tokyo, it will be that. Hopefully we can all go 46’s and put on a show for everyone.”

More: LRC NBIGP Preview: The Best US Indoor Meet Of 2021 Season Is Saturday What a track meet. You can make a case that the men’s Olympic favorites at 100, 200, 400, and 800 are all racing in Staten Island this weekend. Plus Sydney McLaughlinShaunae Miller-Uibo, and AR attempts in the 1,000 (Bryce Hoppel) & 2-mile (Elle Purrier).

LRC What About The Sport? Wouldn’t It Be Nice If Donavan Brazier & Bryce Hoppel Raced Each Other Once This Season? Jonathan Gault takes a look at how it’s possible that the two 800m stars, who will be at the same meet three times in a four-week span, including Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, won’t face each other this winter.

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