In 2019, American hurdler Dalilah Muhammad shattered the world record in the 400m hurdles, not once but twice.
To break records of such a high caliber requires unrelenting competitiveness — especially in such a grueling event that entails clearing 10 hurdles. But when Muhammad isn’t bolting around a track, she considers herself to be pretty “chill.”
“A lot of times people see you on the track, and they think you’re this super competitive person,” she told Just Women’s Sports.
“But honestly, I think off the track, that would be the most surprising thing about me. I’m not the type of person that has to win at bowling or has to win at board games.”
There’s a time and a place for Muhammad’s competitiveness, like last summer when the defending champion in the 400m hurdles was gearing up for her second consecutive Olympic Games.
The then 31-year-old won gold in the event at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and was set for an epic showdown in Tokyo to defend her title. In the end, Muhammad finished the race in second place to teammate Sydney McLaughlin.
WOW.The Olympic 400m hurdle champion Dalilah Muhammad SMASHES a 16-year-old world record in the rain! pic.twitter.com/I4qEO3hwYI— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) July 29, 2019
WOW.The Olympic 400m hurdle champion Dalilah Muhammad SMASHES a 16-year-old world record in the rain! pic.twitter.com/I4qEO3hwYI
Not many knew the challenges Muhammad faced leading up to that blistering race, where she clocked 51.58, her fastest time ever, to win silver. She had nicked her hamstring twice, causing her to develop a slight limp, and dealt with two separate bouts of COVID-19, each time leaving her with severe symptoms that derailed her ability to train.
Muhammad achieved greatness despite such adversity. The key, she said, was a switch in her mental approach.
“I think for me, it was me telling myself to just have fun and try and see what happens,” she said. “I think just having that little flip in mindset really enabled me to push through and to see where I could take it.”
A native of Queens, New York, Muhammad began her track and field career at 7 years old. After seeing the youngster bounding down the city streets, a neighborhood track coach urged Muhammad’s mother, Nadirah, to have her join his club team.
Opportunities for aspiring runners like Muhammad were plentiful within the borough, where there were multiple teams she could join and many local tracks available. “I can think of three tracks that are literally within a mile radius of where my actual apartment was,” she said.
Early on, Muhammad says she dipped her toe into as many sports as possible, including basketball, tennis, dance and swimming. But it was track and field that she loved the most.
“I definitely was the best at track and field,” she recalled of her younger self. “And I just felt like I had a gift, and I wanted to pursue that gift.”
Although she felt a unique magnetism toward the hurdles, Muhammad was encouraged by her coach to give many events a try — race walk, long jump, high jump, and even shot put and cross country.
“I always loved the hurdles. I always gravitated towards them,” she said. “I remember wanting to really nail the technique and really wanting to be good at it.”
It was no surprise when her love for hurdling blossomed in high school. With a solid endurance base, Muhammad was poised to excel in the 400m hurdles, an event only high-school level athletes in New York state could enter.
“I was one of those kids that couldn’t wait for the 400m hurdles,” she said. “I had enough speed, but I also had the distance background that a lot of 400m hurdles need.”
At Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, located in Bayside, a neighborhood of Queens, Muhammad says she began to push her limits and, in turn, took her athletic pursuits more seriously. In 2007, she won the IAAF World Youth title in the Czech Republic and was named New York State’s Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year. The following season, as a senior, she captured gold in both the New York State Championships and the Nike Outdoor Nationals.
During those teenage years, Muhammad realized her dream of earning a collegiate track and field scholarship was within reach. Several universities — including Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida State, South Carolina and USC — were chomping at the bit when Muhammad became eligible for recruitment. Eventually, she traded the East Coast for the West to attend USC.
“I thought that USC would have a nice balance of a good academic program and athletic program. That was really what sold it for me,” she said. “And you can’t beat the California weather.”
As a Trojan, Muhammad majored in business and became one of the leading 400m hurdlers in the nation. She earned All-American honors twice in the event and still ranks among the top 10 USC performers of all time.
In 2013, a year after graduating from USC, Muhammad was itching to make her first-ever World Championship team. After falling short in the preliminary round at the 2012 Olympic Trials, she was determined to make a comeback.
During that process, she developed a way to center herself while still taking everything in stride. It became just one word — her “power word.”
“I remember setting a goal and deciding, OK, the goal is to make this team, and let’s just find a word that puts it all into one line,” Muhammad said.
Rather than letting the pressure of reaching the world-class stage consume her, Muhammad repeated her power word again and again. Almost like a mini mantra, it began to work.
The performances that followed boosted her track profile and eventually led her to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. At the 2013 USA Outdoor Championships, she won her first national title in a new personal best to clinch her spot on the U.S. team. Unfazed by the global competition, Muhammad then blazed down the home straightaway at the World Championships in Moscow to earn a silver medal in the 400m hurdles.
Fast forward to this outdoor season. Muhammad, now 32, is dominating the elite hurdling scene. Just last month, at the Diamond League event in Birmingham, she comfortably cleared the final hurdle in first place with a time of 54.54. While she sat out of the USA Outdoor Championships this past weekend with a hamstring injury — where reigning Olympic gold medalist McLaughlin won in world-record time — Muhammad is set to compete in the 400m at worlds next month after receiving a bye as the defending champion.
“I think this has been one of my best seasons I’ve been having so far, in terms of how I’ve been practicing, and I’m a lot stronger,” Muhammad said.
Coached by Lawrence “Boogie” Johnson at the Athletic Performance Ranch in Forth Worth, Texas, Muhammad has been training with a new stacked roster of 16 women and men.
“They just bring so much life to training every single day, and having younger people to train with definitely keeps you motivated,” Muhammad said.
The group works out during the early mornings from Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday to beat the southern heat. At this point in the season, Muhammad says practices last about three hours — compared to the typical five — followed by a short break and then a weightlifting session in the gym.
“It’s that nice balance of being super proud of the people that you train with, and having them to push you, too,” she said.
While Muhammad shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon, her future as a pro athlete has inevitably been on her mind. “I think it starts to play in your head — your age, and what the world is telling you,” she said.
Now more than ever, athletes are pushing the limits of longevity to achieve peak performance past age 40. Muhammad looks up to 40-year-old tennis star Serena Williams, in particular.
“She, to me, is a huge figure of someone that really represented it,” Muhammad said. “She made it possible that you can have a really long career in sports.”
For the first time in history, the World Athletics Championships will take place on American soil at the magnificently renovated Hayward Field beginning July 15. The women’s 400m hurdles will be a headlining event in Eugene.
As of the end of May, Muhammad is ranked third in the world.
“I always felt joy the other years, but this year for me it’s even more so than the rest. I look forward to really racing and just kind of seeing what happens,” Muhammad said.
“My goal is definitely to bring home that win again and to defend that title. I’d like to break the record, too.”
Brenley Goertzen is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @BrenleyGoertzen.