To understand the elite level of talent that Edrick Floreal recruited to Lexington during his six-year stint (2012-18) as Kentucky Wildcats track and field coach, one need only be paying attention to the run-up to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
If you went to bed early Sunday night, you missed the scintillating, world-record performance of the former one-and-done UK track star Sydney McLaughlin in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Matched against her archrival, Dalilah Muhammad, the 21-year-old McLaughlin relentlessly wore down the reigning Olympic and world champion in the final segment of the race and became the first woman in history to run the 400-meter hurdles (51.90) in under 52 seconds.
Such is the star power of McLaughlin, People.com had a story about her Olympic Trials triumph on its front page Monday morning.
When one is stamped as having “sky is the limit” potential — a tag McLaughlin has carried ever since qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team in 2016 as a 16-year-old — it can be a vexing challenge to live up to expectations.
Under intense scrutiny, McLaughlin continues to clear every hurdle.
If you are a Kentucky Wildcats sports fan, you suddenly have bragging rights in unprecedented areas.
McLaughlin’s win in the 400 hurdles Sunday night coupled with Kendra Harrison’s victory in the 100 hurdles two Sundays ago means that former UK stars swept the women’s hurdles events at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
The time of McLaughlin in the 400 hurdles coupled with ex-Wildcats star Jasmine Camacho-Quinn’s 12.32 in the 100 hurdles in April gives ex-Cats the fastest times in the world in 2021 in both major women’s hurdles disciplines.
With McLaughlin (51.90 in the 400 hurdles) joining Harrison (12.20 in the 100 hurdles in 2016) as a world-record holder, it means former Kentucky stars now have run the fastest races ever in both major women’s hurdle disciplines.
At the upcoming Olympics, the UK Alumni Association may as well charge dues at the track and field venue.
In addition to McLaughlin and Harrison, former Kentucky sprinter Javianne Oliver raced her way onto the American team in the 100-meter dash.
Camacho-Quinn will be in Japan competing for Puerto Rico in the 100 hurdles. She and Harrison could end up engaged in a Cat-vs.-Cat duel for the Olympics gold medal.
Former Wildcat Leah Nugent will also compete in the Olympics, representing Jamaica in the 400 hurdles.
From a UK perspective, the primary U.S. Olympic Trials disappointments were that ex-Kentucky sprinter Dezerea Bryant’s season-best 22.24 seconds in the 200 meters was only good enough for sixth in the finals in what was a scalding-fast race won by former Harvard star Gabby Thomas (21.69).
That, and the fact that an apparent injury derailed the outdoor season of current UK sprint star Abby Steiner.
In winning the NCAA Indoor 200 meters championship in March, Steiner, a junior from Dublin, Ohio, looked like a viable contender to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Steiner tied the all-time collegiate record in the NCAA Indoor finals by running :22.38 — the second-fastest indoor 200 meters ever run in the United States and the fifth-fastest ever run in the world.
There will be some former Kentucky men’s track and field performers competing in Tokyo.
Ex-UK hurdles star Daniel Roberts qualified for the U.S. team by finishing third in the 110-meter hurdles in Eugene.
Roberts ran a season-best time of 13.11 seconds to finish behind his former college nemesis, ex-Florida star Grant Holloway (:12.96), and ex-Oregon hurdler Devon Allen (:13.10).
Tim Duckworth, a two-time NCAA champion at UK, will compete in the decathlon for Great Britain in the Olympics.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the staff of current Kentucky Coach Lonnie Greene or Floreal’s program at Texas reaps more recruiting benefits from the ample Olympics Trials success of former UK athletes.
What is certain is that 2021 has yielded unprecedented success for Kentucky women’s athletes, present and past.
Led by national player of the year Madison Lilley, the UK volleyball team captured its first NCAA championship in April.
Paced by national player of the year Mary Tucker, the Kentucky rifle team — comprised of both women and men — won its third national title in March.
(Tucker, along with UK teammate Will Shaner, will also compete in the Olympics for Team USA).
The Kentucky women’s swimming and diving team gave UK the first Southeastern Conference championship in that sport in school history in February.
Just this month, Wildcats women’s basketball star Rhyne Howard was named MVP of the FIBA AmeriCup Tournament after leading the U.S. to the gold medal.
All of that prologue makes the track and field achievements of former UK women’s stars in the lead-up to the Olympics feel like an extension of what was already the “Year of the Women” in Kentucky Wildcats sports history.