(Editor’s note: This story was reported and published just prior to Athing Mu’s gold medal for the U.S. in the 800-meter race on Aug. 3)
Her visibility as one of the top 800-meter runners in the United States is rapidly growing, so Athing Mu wants to help those who struggle with the pronunciation of her name.
“Uh-thing Moe. So it’s Uh – like you’re saying ‘Uh, what are you doing?’-thing Moe,” she said with a laugh.
The pride of Trenton, Mu has made a meteoric rise on the national scene. She garnered worldwide attention in last month’s 800-meter final of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic trials with a dominant victory in 1 minute, 56.07 seconds – the fastest time of the year and second-fastest ever by an American.
In finishing ahead of 2016 Olympian Ajee’ Wilson and 2019 world champion silver medalist Raevyn Rogers, her teammates on Team USA, the long-striding, 5-foot-10 Mu showed she is ready for the world stage after a sensational freshman year at Texas A&M where she won three NCAA championships and broke six collegiate records before turning pro last month.
When she begins competition this week, she will seek to become the first American woman to win the gold medal in the 800 since Madeline Manning Mims in 1968.
It’s a lot of expectations for a 19-year-old, being considered a prodigy and track and field’s next superstar, but Mu takes it all in stride, showing the same poise and confidence she exhibits on the track.
“I take everything that people say about me lightly,” she said earlier this month. “I’m just coming out here doing my thing – running the races, just having fun. People can think what they want, I don’t know, it’s like OK. It feels awesome to be here, recognizing a lot of people. People want to take pictures of me, autographs and stuff. So that’s fun but I’m just doing the same thing I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Wilson, the only American woman to run a faster 800 (1:55.61) than Mu, is impressed by the Mu, especially her ability to run the 400 as well as the 800.
“Her being exceptional and elite not only in one event but also in two is super impressive,” Wilson said last month in an interview with The Inquirer. “I admire her raw speed. I also think her carefree, kind of just running free mentality and attitude is super admirable and reminds me of myself.”
Mu’s parents emigrated from Sudan and settled in Trenton before she was born, the second youngest of their seven children. Mu was honored with a big sendoff by community leaders and government officials last week at Trenton City Hall where a huge banner of her was revealed.
Mu loved running at an early age, going on fun jogs with her parents and siblings at a nearby track. She joined the Trenton Track Club at 6 years old and eventually would compete at 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 meters. She became an honor student at Trenton Central High School but did not compete for the team, choosing instead to run in AAU events.
Between her sophomore and junior years, a stunning performance in the 2018 AAU Junior Olympics – gold medals in the 400, 800, and 1,500 and a silver in the 200 – introduced her to all the nation’s top collegiate track coaches. Her big national splash came several months later, at the 2019 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships, where she set an American record in the 600 in 1:23.57, the second fastest time ever run in the event.
Although she called Oregon her “dream school,” she chose Texas A&M because she liked the team and coaches and felt comfortable there during her visit. The Aggies were getting someone who, by the time of her high school graduation, lowered her best times to 51.98 seconds in the 400, and 2:01.17 in the 800.
At Texas A&M, Mu became the eighth woman in track history to break 2 minutes in the 800 and run the 400 in less than 50 seconds, with a low of 49.68 in the NCAA preliminaries. But she decided against a 400-800 double in the Olympics and focus on the 800.
“I love the 800 meters, that is the key to my heart,” she said earlier this month. “In middle school, I had dreams of being an Olympian running in the Olympics on a track and field team. USA is the hardest team to make in the world. We have a powerhouse in every event whether it’s field events or races. This is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
“Being able to compete with the best in the world, because you’re one of those athletes, that would be insane. Everything is just falling into place at the right time.”
The competition for Mu will be difficult. Wilson remains No. 1 in the World Athletics ranking for 800 and an excellent corps of international runners include Uganda’s Winnie Nanyado and Halimah Nakaayi and Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, a Penn Relays visitor when she competed for Manchester High and Louisiana State.
But she admitted after the trials that she could envision herself on the podium in Tokyo.
“It would be a really great experience if I’m able to get on the podium,” Mu said, “just knowing that everything that I’ve done from the start has worked, all the hard work that’s been put in has paid off, all the late nights or the tears or the sad races, the losses. It’d be surreal.”