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, Ore., when she finished in second place.
The Tokyo Games will be Muhammad’s chance to defend her 2016 Olympic gold medal in a highly anticipated event packed with talent.
Muhammad, 31, grew up in Jamaica, Queens. She was “running before she was walking,” her mother, Nadirah Muhammad, said.
She joined a local running club at a young age, and in her early races, Muhammad developed an analytical approach to the sport, breaking down competitors’ performances to improve her own.
Here she is at 17 running the 200-meter race. She finished in first place.
This year, Muhammad has faced a number of setbacks, including hamstring injuries and contracting the coronavirus.
Now she’s working to regain her old form.
We spent some time with her at the Athletic Performance Ranch in Fort Worth to see how she was preparing.
OUT OF THE BLOCKS
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.”
She will take 23 precisely placed strides to the first hurdle.
OVER THE HURDLES
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.
Here’s Muhammad’s hurdling technique on display at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar, where she beat her own world record.
“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.”
RACE TO THE FINISH
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.”