RIO DE JANEIRO – Renee Marko has a lingering image of tossing the bouquet at her wedding and watching in amazement as her young first cousin bounded past the other females to grab the prize.
“She was hurdling people six years ago,” Marko said with a laugh. “She was 11.”
That girl, Sydney McLaughlin, grew up to be the best young hurdler of her time, a New Jersey high school phenomenon who this week became the youngest American track and field athlete in 44 years to compete for the U.S. Olympic team.
Of course, “grew up” is a relative term. McLaughlin turned 17 two days after the Opening Ceremonies. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. She will graduate from Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains next spring.
McLaughlin also has Buffalo roots. You never know when that great diaspora of Western New Yorkers makes a global connection. Like Canada’s swimming sensation, Penny Oleksiak, she has a parent who grew up in the Buffalo area.
Sydney’s mother, the former Mary Neumeister, grew up in Tonawanda and went to high school there before moving away. Her maternal grandmother, Helen Neumeister, 92, still lives in Tonawanda. Mary’s brother, Mike Neumeister, and sister, Donna Carey, still live in the area, as do various aunts, uncles and cousins.
Her father, Willie, was a hurdler who was a semifinalst in the 1984 Olympic trials. Her older brother, Taylor, is a hurdler at Michigan and former silver medalist at the under-20 World Championships. Her mother ran in high school.
McLaughlin has been breaking high school records in New Jersey since she was a 14-year-old freshman. She burst on the scene after qualifying for the Olympics at 16. She has her picture on billboards and Gatorade bottles and was a hot media attraction in Rio, where she dazzled reporters with her intelligence and maturity.
On Monday, McLaughlin became the youngest American to compete in an Olympic track event since 1972. Fighting a cold, she finished fifth in her heat in the 400-meter hurdles in 56.32, qualifying for the semifinals. She finished fifth in Tuesday’s semis and failed to make Thursday’sfinal.
Marko said a group of friends and relatives gathered at her home in Amherst to watch her first cousin compete in the Games. “I had a bunch of people over for both of her races,” said Marko, who teaches at West Buffalo Charter School.
McLaughlin wasn’t expected to medal at such a young age. Track stars don’t generally peak until their 20s. So four years from now, she could be one of the stars of the Tokyo Olympics. Maybe the Buffalo clan will go to support her.
“Oh, my goodness!” Marko said. “I would love to. We weren’t too keen on Rio, with all the stuff going on down there. But Japan? Hey, maybe.”