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Giovanni Reda Sydney McLaughlin
Sydney McLaughlin is ready for a victory lap.
The rising track and field star, 21, is training hard for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics, and crediting an extra spring in her step to her New Balance kicks.
"The decision was really a no-brainer. I've loved and worn New Balance all throughout high school," McLaughlin tells PEOPLE of being an ambassador for the brand. "They've been so gracious and so loving ever since then. So really just being able to partner with them for my pro career, it just makes sense."
"They're like family and it's been really cool just being able to do different collabs with them," the athlete adds, on the heels of their "We Got Now" campaign before Tokyo.
Affectionately known as "Syd the Kid" during the Rio Olympics nearly five years ago, McLaughlin made headlines at 16 as the youngest track athlete to compete for Team USA since 1972. Though the sprinter missed making the final of the women's 400-meter hurdles, finishing fifth in her semifinal, it only fueled her fire for the future.
"It was a whirlwind of an experience," McLaughlin says now of the unforgettable summer before her senior year of high school. "Definitely not something I was expecting to do that summer, but it was just such a great opportunity to really have a peek into the life that I wanted for myself and my pro career."
She continues, "Being able to just get that firsthand experience so young, I really am grateful for it because it just shaped how I looked at things, moving forward, and just my mindset going into big events like that. I'm really grateful for the opportunity."
McLaughlin admits it was surreal to have the global coronavirus pandemic delay the Games by a year.
"I think at first it was just shocking, confusing for a lot of people, just because we had been so far into our training that we felt like it was all going to waste," she recalls of the emotional roller coaster. "But just making the most out of it, I was really grateful for the time. It allowed me the time to make a coaching change. Just really take a look at my race and figure out things that I wanted to work on. So I'm really grateful for that time."
Now, with a month to go until the make-or-break track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, McLaughlin is laser-focused on her goal, describing a typical day in her life as all business.
"I'll wake up around 7:00 a.m., head to practice at about 9:30 a.m., practice for two hours, pick up some food, then head to weights where I lift for around an hour to an hour and a half," she says. "Then I go to get some treatment which could be anywhere from an hour to two hours, find some dinner and then just rest and recover until I do it all again the next day."
If all goes as planned, McLaughlin says one lucky charm will "absolutely" come with her to Tokyo.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images Sydney McLaughlin
"I have a Minions blanket that I've had since I was about maybe 15 and I take it with me to every single race and that mixed with just my Beats headphones and my New Balances slides," she says. "Having literally those three things as I'm going to the track, I know it's going to be a good day."
More seriously, McLaughlin called it an honor to train alongside Allyson Felix, naming the six-time gold medalist as her Olympic role model.
"She's possibly going into her fifth Olympics and just seeing how she's composed herself and carried herself throughout all of it. I really admire that," McLaughlin tells PEOPLE of her friend and mentor. "She's done it with such class and such poise and not only that, but she's just ridiculously fast."
In a word of advice to young track and field hopefuls, the athlete shares a sage mantra for approaching obstacles both on and off the track.
"I would just say focus on your lane. Literally and figuratively," McLaughlin says. "Other people are going to peak at different times. And I think even to this day in my pro career, people will run fast at different times and it can throw you off if you're not focused on what's ahead of you."
"Trust your own process and progression, as opposed to looking at what everyone else has going on around you."
To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.