Dalilah Muhammad Overcomes Adversity One Hurdle at a Time
By Jennifer Zahn
Heading into the 400m hurdles final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Dalilah Muhammad had every reason to be confident—she already bested the field in both the preliminary and semifinal rounds—but couldn’t shake her doubts on the way to the starting line.
In the semifinal, Muhammad ran her season’s best time, 54.15, to outpace her competitors by more than a second. Her race was perfectly executed.
That’s why she was concerned.
“The second round didn’t feel that hard, but I was kind of worried, because I didn’t know how much faster I could go, or whether it took too much out of my body to run 54.1,” Muhammad said. “I just didn’t know how much further my body could actually go, or how much faster I could run.”
As it turned out, she was capable of running faster—much faster than she ever thought possible.
When the gun went off, Muhammad got out so aggressively it seemed like she was trying to win a 45-meter race to the first hurdle rather than a full lap through 10 hurdles. But barrier after barrier, she maintained her lead. The pace she set was shocking—it immediately caught the attention of the audience and NBC’s announcers.
Through that first 150, it is Dalilah Muhammad in lane six.
She tore through the curve on her way toward the homestretch, unchallenged.
Dalilah Muhammad had the fastest time in the first round and in the semifinals. And she’s storming away with this one!
As the stagger began to even out, Muhammad’s lead was on full display, and growing with each stride. With 100 meters to go, she drove into the seventh hurdle as the rest of the field jockeyed for second and third place.
But surely Dalilah Muhammad cannot be caught now!
After seamlessly hurdling the final barrier, she was almost 15 meters ahead of the next-closest runner, Ashley Spencer, and just 40 meters away from an Olympic berth to Rio.
This is a massive win!
As Muhammad ran through the finish line, she looked up at the scoreboard, then dropped to her knees.
52.88 for Dalilah Muhammad—huge PR, and she is on her first Olympic team.
Stunned, Muhammad got to her feet, and couldn’t help but look back at the clock to make sure it was real. The displayed time was almost a second faster than her previous lifetime best, 53.83, which she set in 2013.
“My coach told me it was going to be a fast time, but I didn’t know it was going to be that fast,” she said.
It was a new U.S. Olympic Trials record, the fastest time in the world in 2016, the fifth-fastest time in American history, and the 13th-fastest time in world history.
We haven’t seen a 52 in I don’t know how long—she dominated from the gun.
But Muhammad knew how long it had been since a woman ran that fast—she was in the race the last time it happened, almost exactly three years go.
The last time the world saw 52
In 2013, Muhammad was 23, and in the throes of a breakthrough season.
While training with her new coach, Yolanda Demus, and her daughter, 2012 Olympic silver medalist and American record-holder Lashinda Demus, Muhammad transitioned from NCAA standout to elite athlete. She set personal bests in her first four 400m hurdle races of the year to reduce her PR from 56.04 to 54.66, which put her in contention for the 2013 USATF National Outdoor Championships.
“In college, I ran OK, but I never ran my full potential,” Muhammad said. “The year after I graduated, that’s when I realized I needed to give it everything I’ve got and try as hard as I possibly can to prove to myself that I can do this. It wasn’t until I ran that first race post-college, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been struggling to run 55 for four years, and that’s what I opened up with!’ That year was just shocking.”
In the USATF championship 400m hurdles final, Muhammad continued her astonishing progression by nearly lopping another second off her PR. She stunned the crowd at Drake Stadium by running 53.83 to win the U.S. title and qualify for the world team ahead of Georganne Moline, who recently wrapped up her senior year in the NCAA with a 53.72 PR.
Rolling with her season’s momentum, Muhammad barreled through the qualifying rounds at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow to reach the final with Demus. Zuzana Hejnova of the Czech Republic ran a convincing 53.52 in her semifinal to solidify herself as the favorite.
In the final, Muhammad ran a strong race in 54.09, and reeled in Demus at the line for second. But Hejnova was stronger.
Off the final turn, the Czech had plowed ahead to bury Muhammad and Demus with a world-leading mark in 2013 and lifetime best of 52.83, which broke the Czechoslovakian national record.
Hejnova won another world championship title in 2015, but hasn’t broken 53 seconds in the 400m hurdles since the day she won in Moscow over Muhammad.
Although she had burst onto the global track and field scene in 2013, no one suspected Muhammad would be the next woman to break the 53-second barrier—especially not after the two years of frustration and disappointment that followed her silver-medal performance in Moscow.
Backed by a season full of PRs, world-class hardware, and a fresh Nike contract, Muhammad entered 2014 with a lot of promise and high hopes.
There was also a lot of pressure.
“Before 2013, my PR in the 400m hurdles was 56-flat. And after improving so much that year, I kind of thought, ‘Well, this is my best—how much better can I get after such a big improvement like this?’” Muhammad said. “It’s hard to know how much further you can push yourself.”
She ran only five races that year, and just two in her signature event. Muhammad didn’t break 58 seconds in either race—a mark she regularly surpassed in high school.
Further hardship awaited her once the 2015 season began.
In her second outdoor meet that year, Muhammad won the Oxy Invitational 400m hurdles in 55.76, which would stand as the 36th-fastest time in the world in 2015.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m on pace with where I was in 2013.’ I was so happy because my 2014 season was terrible,” Muhammad said. “But after that race, I noticed my quad was sore. And then the next week, it got progressively worse. I don’t know what I did in that race that hurt it, but in a week, I was unable to run at all.”
The next weekend, she attempted to run through the injury at the Shanghai Diamond League meet. The results were disastrous—she faded within the first 200 meters, and closed far behind the rest of the field in 59.79.
Unwilling to give up the months of training she completed that year, Muhammad resorted to taking time off from competition to focus on recovery. Although she eventually progressed to cross-training, she could not salvage her fitness.
“My coach was trying to keep me in shape, but it was almost impossible since I was so limited,” Muhammad said. “It was just an unfortunate situation. I had lost so much of my strength and fitness that I couldn’t make up the lost time.”
Although Muhammad did qualify to the U.S. National Outdoor Championships final that year in 56.15, she finished seventh in 57.31—a shadow of her 53.83 PR.
“I was going to so many different doctors, and all of them were saying, ‘Oh, it’s not even torn!’ or, ‘It’s just strained!’ But I could not run. And out of all the treatments I tried, nothing was working. In my opinion, it had to have been torn—I couldn’t even jog. It lasted for so long.”
Determined to not let her injury get the best of her, Muhammad continued to push through the pain by competing in two international meets. The results were more of the same; she didn’t break 56 seconds.
It was time for a change.
Muhammad parted from the Demus clan in February of 2016 to join Coach Lawrence Johnson’s training group, which includes Kristi Castlin and 2013 world champion Brianna Rollins. Both qualified for the U.S. Olympic 100m hurdles team, and will join Muhammad in Rio. They train together at the Matador Track and Field Complex in Northridge, California, where Coach Johnson also works as an assistant track and field coach for Cal State.
“I didn’t want to keep doing what I was doing in 2014 and 2015. I felt like I needed something different,” Muhammad said. “Although I ran fast in 2013, I felt tired at practice and didn’t have the fitness I needed. I also wanted something else to stimulate my mind in a different environment—something that I was more comfortable with, and made me really want to be there and motivated me to want to run fast again. Ultimately, I wanted a new challenge.”
Muhammad first became acquainted with Coach Johnson almost a decade ago. While coaching at Virginia Tech, he recruited her when she was a rising prep talent at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, New York. Though Muhammad ultimately chose USC, she couldn’t help but notice his athletes’ success.
“After I had seen how he helped so many other girls, I thought, ‘I would work great with that coach,’” Muhammad said. “So when I first thought about making a coaching change in 2015, I thought of him right off the bat.”
Adapting to an entirely new program was daunting, but Muhammad thrived under Coach Johnson’s speed-focused philosophies. She even took on 100m hurdle-specific workouts in practice to sharpen her reactions and hone her speed.
“I’m in better shape than I was in 2013, and I’m a lot stronger and faster in terms of footspeed. My finish is better, too,” she said. Working with him has really helped me grow as an athlete, find my confidence, and improve my hurdling and racing in general.”
This year, Muhammad’s speed improved to the point where her open 400m PR, 52.64, is almost the same as her new 400m hurdles PR, 52.88. Although she explained the differential between those two races for her has always been about a second or two at the most, she’s now confident 52.64 doesn’t reflect the extent of her abilities.
“The only time I ever run the open 400 is very early in the season, when you’re just not sharp or fast yet. For my coach, it’s like, once I run 52, he shuts it down,” Muhammad said. “And that’s always how it’s been with all my coaches, so we know I’m ready to go to the next level of training. I’ve never really raced it to the best of my ability. I think next year, I’ll definitely run an open 400 later in the season to look better on paper!”
Once he knew Muhammad’s speed was on target, Coach Johnson tailored her workouts according to her race strategy. Eventually, she got to the point where she could charge hard to the first hurdle, float the backstretch, surge after the fifth hurdle, hold a 15-step pattern to the eighth barrier, then floor it to the finish line with whatever was left in the tank.
“The training did change, but more than anything, it was mental,” Muhammad said. “This year, I kept reminding myself, ‘I know I can run 53.8, and I’m amongst the best in the world—let me push myself to be the best in the world, not just amongst the best.’ For me, telling myself and knowing Trials is not the end, it’s just the beginning, and Rio is really where it counts and where you want to be your absolute best helped get me to the next level.”
That mentality fueled her dominance at the Trials, along with Coach Johnson’s sage advice just before the final round.
“He told me, ‘Just be you. You know what you’re doing—don’t try to be anything else.’ And I think that just settled my mind to just do what I had to do.”
'The rest should fall into place'
Of the seven fastest 400m hurdle times recorded in the world this year, the U.S. owns five of them; but of course, only three will race in Rio.
Muhammad’s 52.88 tops the list. Shamier Little, who ran 2016’s second-fastest time (53.51—almost a second slower than Muhammad), did not qualify out of the U.S. Trials. The fourth-fastest runner this year in 53.97, Moline, became a nonfactor after she scratched from the Trials due to injury.
In Rio, Muhammad’s next-closest competitor will be Janieve Russell of Jamaica, who ran the third-fastest time of 2016 in 53.96—a far cry from Muhammad’s 52.88 performance. Great Britain’s Eilidh Doyle will also be in the hunt for some hardware with 2016’s sixth-fastest time and the fourth-fastest time heading to Rio: 54.09.
American Ashley Spencer, who impressively navigated through six rounds of the open 400m and 400m hurdles at the Trials, qualified in this year’s fifth-fastest time, and will have the third-fastest performance entering the opening round (54.02). Team USA is rounded out by 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, who ran the seventh-fastest time in 2016/fifth-best mark going to Rio (54.15).
Muhammad is optimistic about their fortunes, and believes they might even have a shot at sweeping the podium.
“Between the three of us, we have strong team heading into Rio. Ashley really doesn’t run the 400-meter hurdles much, so she improved a ton to make the team, and it really says a lot about how much further she can go,” Muhammad said. “Same with Sydney—she’s still so young that she doesn’t know her full potential yet, and has been running strong all year. We’re all really close, and it’s not like anyone is that far away in the top five.”
In what could be the United States’ most dominant event on the track in the 2016 Olympic Games, Muhammad is the overwhelming favorite. Which also means the target on her back is bigger than ever.
But in the past two years, Muhammad’s struggles forged an iron will that cannot be tempered by pressure. She has gone from a young athlete whose talents overpowered her ability to harness them, to a woman with the poise and focus to obliterate an Olympic field. Such success might have intimidated Muhammad three years ago, but now, she’s riding it into Rio with confidence.
“That PR from the Trials was such a big jump, but I’m running well at practice and everything is going great, so I don’t think that’s it for me—not at all,” Muhammad said. “If I keep doing what I’ve been doing, I have a really good shot at gold, but that’s not what I’m focusing on.”
She approaches her goals the same way she approaches the hurdles: one at a time.
“My goals are to execute my race, focus on my form and give it 100 percent—if I do that, the rest should fall into place. I’m excited for it, and looking forward to seeing what I can do. I’m going to keep working hard up until that day, and hopefully it all works out. I just want to attain the success that I’m capable of achieving.”
If she does, we’ll see her on top of the podium in the Olympic Stadium in 10 days.
Dalilah Muhammad will begin her quest for gold on Monday, August 15, in the first round of the 400m hurdles. Check out the full Olympic track and field schedule here.