Scholar Stories: Engineering, Track Passions Intersect for McLaughlin

Feb. 15, 2017

Every Wednesday during the 2016-17 academic year, will highlight a different student-athlete and their academic path. These are our Scholar Stories.

University of Michigan men's track and field sophomore Taylor McLaughlin is as grounded in reality as any star student-athlete can be.

At 19, he holds the school record in the 400-meter dash, is a U.S. Junior national champion in the 400-meter hurdles and finished second in in the same event at the 2016 IAAF World Junior Championships.

McLaughlin works hard, often spending about five hours a day at the U-M Indoor Track Facility. But for someone so young and so talented, he has an incredible ability to see the big picture.

When asked if he was set on running professionally, he responded, "If engineering takes off right after college, I'd rather go into that and run on the side if I can."

Oh yeah, he's a mechanical engineer too. When talking to McLaughlin, it becomes immediately evident that he's sharp enough to study anything and calm enough to accomplish anything. Engineering has always been right with running as one of his greatest passions. In fact, he determined his engineering path long before he became a track star.

"I came out the womb wanting to be an engineer," he said. "I was a Lego kid, for sure. I loved making and designing things since day one and there was never really a question of what I wanted to do in college."

His family's track pedigree is special. His father, Willie, was an All-American at Manhattan College, his mother, Mary, was a high school track star, and all three of his siblings have run competitively. His 17-year-old sister, Sydney, competed in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Still, though, he played rec sports such as basketball and soccer growing up, with track being only a summer pursuit until high school. He says, "Once [my siblings and I] got to high school, it turned out we were pretty good at it and we kind of just went from there."

There's not a pompous, pretentious bone in McLaughlin's body, a characteristic not often seen among well-accomplished athletes. Instead, he has a special blend of devotion to his craft and to his career.

When deciding on a college to attend, he knew he had to service both passions:

"I searched for the top 10 mechanical engineering programs, looked which ones had track programs, and went down the list from there."

And that's how McLaughlin ended up at Michigan.

Not even through his second year on campus, McLaughlin has a chance to be remembered as one of the premier track athletes in school history. Still, he's concerned about whether his track commitments will slow his desired career arch.

Because track is a year-round sport, McLaughlin has found it difficult to find time to gain industry experience through immersive internships. He instead is determined to find smaller opportunities to devote time to work in engineering settings, such as a machine shop on campus that he has his eye on for this summer.

For the same reason, despite his clear potential, McLaughlin isn't committing to running long term. But he's not ruling it out, either.

"If I [focus on running] for three years after college, that's three rounds of college graduates that now have more engineering experience than me."

The maturity he displays in looking beyond his track career makes it difficult to remember just how talented and just how young McLaughlin is. Only 18 months ago, he was making the adjustment to college running.

"[The transition] was rough," he said. "Your body, when you start doing different training, will hurt all the time. Because your body doesn't feel good so you think you're doing something wrong. You really just have to trust the training and trust the process. That can be tough to do when you're jumping into a new university with a new coach. It's more mental than anything."

His ability to understand the mental aspect of track undoubtedly contributes to his tremendous success. Even his academic background occasionally comes into play with regard to his hurdling.

"When I hurdle, it's all about force application," McLaughlin said. "So you go to the physics background and learn how torques work. And I've taken some anatomy classes so I know which muscles apply which force and which torque to which bone. It definitely helps with the understanding. Sometimes understanding, especially in hurdling, can help a lot."

When asked why he prefers the 400-meter hurdles, his main event, to the 400-meter dash, he replied, "Hurdles is more of a relaxed and rhythm race than an all-out sprint."

This response explains McLaughlin's life path. He's definitely moving quickly, but like the hurdler he is, he's in rhythm, never out of control.

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