Muhammad set the standard for hurdling. Now she looks to defend her gold.

By Bedel Saget, Emily Rhyne, Noah Throop, Aaron Byrd and Andrew Sondern

When she began the Olympic trials in June, Dalilah Muhammad held the world record in the 400-meter hurdles — a grueling track-and-field race of 10 hurdles.

But she lost it to Sydney McLaughlin at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Oregon, when she finished in second place.

The Tokyo Games represent Muhammad’s chance to defend her 2016 Olympic gold medal in a highly anticipated event packed with talent. On Monday, she won her semifinal heat in 53.30. McLaughlin won a separate heat in 53.03 as the U.S. teammates clocked the top two semifinals times going into today’s final (10:30 p.m. Eastern Time). The only other sub-54-second time in Monday’s semifinals was a 53.91 clocked by Femke Bol of the Netherlands. Rounding out the field in the final are a third U.S. teammate, Anna Cockrell, two hurdlers from the Ukraine, and one each from Jamaica and Panama.

“I always thought the sky is the limit. And as a child, I truly felt that way. Anything to me was achievable,” Muhammad said. “Even when I was eighth in my first race, I thought, ‘One day I’m going to be first.’”

Muhammad, 31, grew up in Jamaica, New York. She was “running before she was walking,” her mother, Nadirah Muhammad, said.

Dalilah Muhammad joined a local running club at a young age, and in her early races she developed an analytical approach to the sport, breaking down competitors’ performances to improve her own.

This year, Muhammad has faced a number of setbacks, including hamstring injuries and contracting the coronavirus.

Now she is working to regain her old form. We went to the Athletic Performance Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas, to see how she was preparing.

Out of the blocks: Precise form

At the starting blocks, Muhammad focuses on raising her body up into the ideal set position.

“There’s a perfect angle you want to get to have a perfect start,” Muhammad said.

Precision is essential from her first strides out of the blocks. Those first dozen strides build speed, dictate her step pattern and determine her approach to the hurdles.

“You can build great speed and acceleration to the first hurdle and be out of position,” said Lawrence (Boogie) Johnson, her coach. “That can kill everything.”

Over the hurdles: Maintaining mechanics

Muhammad maintains her speed by keeping her body movements consistent between sprinting and hurdling.

“What we try to do is not let hurdle mechanics deviate too far from sprint mechanics,” Johnson said.

Muhammad, who brings a sprint-first approach to the sport, is known for pushing the pace early in a race, typically leading by two strides when she reaches the second hurdle.

“I think she set the standard for what it looks like,” Johnson said. “And I think moving forward, we’ll see more athletes kind of adapt to the way that we set up this race and how we program her race strategy.”

Choreographed until the finish: Overcoming fatigue

Her 15-stride pattern allows her to lead with her dominant leg over the first seven hurdles.

Across the race’s 10 hurdles, Muhammad spends only 0.32 of a second in the air, about 20% less than her competitors.

Around the eighth hurdle, fatigue slows her down, and she adds an extra step to lead with her nondominant leg.

Even though her stamina falters, her form does not.

For the ninth or 10th hurdle, she adds another step to return to her dominant leg in preparation for the final sprint.

After the 10th and final hurdle, 40 meters remain between her and the finish line. With fatigue gripping every racer, good form can easily break down. The race often comes down to the athlete who slows down the least and sprints through the finish line.

In Tokyo, Muhammad faces pressure to retain her gold medal and possibly recapture the world record. But the event, she said, is about more than this.

“We talk so much about being at the pinnacle of your career. For me, it doesn’t feel like the top,” Muhammad said. “For me, it just feels like it’s part of the journey, and the journey is not over yet.”

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