Willie McLaughlin had an invitation to watch his daughter run in the Tokyo Olympics at a giant watch party in Orlando, but he declined. He had another chance to be around a throng of supporters in New Jersey on Friday night, but again, he politely said no. NBC even asked to send a camera crew to their house in Dunellen during the 400-meter hurdle preliminaries, but once more, he refused.
He and his wife, Mary, will watch Sydney McLaughlin’s first race as a gold-medal favorite alone in their living room. He has a favorite spot on the love seat. She sits across from him on the couch. They will yell instructions at the television as if, on the other side of the earth, their 21-year-old superstar daughter can hear them.
This is not because they hate crowds. Willie McLaughlin has a bigger fear now. He doesn’t want to end up watching his daughter’s Olympic Dream from a hospital bed, and given his immunocompromised condition, that is a real concern with COVID-19 case numbers rising nationally again.
McLaughlin, 57, had a heart transplant in February. He was born with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart defect, and had gone the hospital for a routine test a month earlier. After an adverse reaction to medication, his heart stopped working properly. He was added to the transplant list immediately, the beginning of a difficult medical ordeal.
If these Olympics have taught us anything, it is that we have no idea what the athletes on our TV sets are dealing with in their personal lives. Simone Biles pulled out of the gymnastics competition to care for her mental health. Katie Ledecky wept in the pool this week because of the pressure that comes with chasing greatness.
Again and again, the world’s best athletes are reminding us that they are human, too — and that we need to listen to them and understand.
McLaughlin kept training and competing. She never mentioned what her father was going through, but it impacted her. How could it not? Her father, himself a track standout who ran in the 1984 Olympic Trials, was there for every step of her journey. He rewarded her with chocolate when she was a kid getting started, was a sounding board as she became a star at Union Catholic, and helped guide her transition into the pros.
“Initially, it was challenging for the kids,” Willie McLaughlin said. “The waiting for the heart is a little stressful, but after the transplant, my wife sent videos of me walking around the hospital the very next day. And they were like, ‘Oh. He’ll be okay.’ They quickly got me in and out, and before you know it I was driving again, mowing the lawn, everything.”
The family, fortunately, didn’t have to wait long for good news. Willie was on the transplant waiting list for just a week, and nine days after his Feb. 11 surgery at NYU Langone Health, he was back home recovering. He has had a few setbacks, including a three-day hospital stay last week, but he went back to work for the first time this week.
“The only thing I can’t do is go to Tokyo,” he said with a laugh.
He can’t go to Japan, of course, because none of the athletes’ families was allowed inside the country because of the pandemic. It is hard not to wonder if the additional strain of not having their support systems with them has made the stress of competing in the biggest sporting event on the planet even more intense.
In many ways, McLaughlin is not that different from Biles. Both are in their early 20s. Both arrived in Tokyo expected to win a gold medal — or, in Biles case, a half-dozen of them — and set records in the process. Both have high-profile endorsement deals that add pressure when they compete in high-profile events.
Willie McLaughlin didn’t need to see Biles’ courageous decision to stop competing to worry about his daughter. He’s been doing that for years.
“Always. It’s not just right now,” he said. “We’ve been concerned about that from the very beginning. I think Syd is in a better spot now than she was mentally, but it’s something we’ve been addressing from the beginning.
“When she was at Kentucky and first went pro, it was challenging. We got her the help that she needed to make the disconnect, and help her understand that, ‘Track is what I do, not who and what I am.’ Getting her to that point took some work because she was very into social media and what people thought.”
Her father believes she is in a good place now, and certainly, the results are. McLaughlin not only won the Olympic Trials, she obliterated a world record in the 400-meter hurdles in the process. The latest round of her personal rivalry with 2016 gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad is expected to take place on August 3 in prime time with gold on the line.
Willie McLaughlin likely will watch that one from his favorite spot on the love seat, too. He knows just how much his daughter has worked for this moment, and how many obstacles she has overcome every time she clears those hurdles. He can’t be in Tokyo, but he will be cheering her every step of the way from his living room in New Jersey.
His heart — his new heart — will be beating fast.
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Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.