Athing Mu: Record-breaker, Olympic champion and just getting started

Still only 19 years old and with two Olympic gold medals already in her pocket, you’d think the USA’s Athing Mu might be resting on her laurels. But with her outrageous potential just starting to fulfil itself, the Olympic 800m champion has set some lofty goals for her future in athletics. 

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

There were 53 years between the USA’s first women’s Olympic 800m gold medal and the next, all the way from Mexico City 1968 to Tokyo 2020, which took place in 2021.

The first winner was Madeline Manning, who stormed to gold with an Olympic record run of 2:00.9 in the heat of Mexico City.

The second was Athing Mu, whose gold-winning time of 1:51.21 at Tokyo 2020 was a national record, which was since beaten by Mu herself at the post-Olympics Prefontaine Classic.

Manning’s victory was by all accounts a surprise. It was the first Olympic 800m win by a black woman in the history of the Games and opened doors for people of colour across the world with a dream of running longer distances.

But for those in the know, Mu’s victory came as little surprise at all. Her progress has been so rapid and oftentimes astounding that her 800m gold seemed like a natural progression at the beginning of a career that promises to reach stratospheric levels.

The confidence to dream

Confidence has become something of a byword for Mu.

As she said in an exclusive post-Tokyo 2020 interview with Olympics.com: “Anything I put my mind to, I can achieve. There’s no one that can stop me doing anything besides myself.”

And her ambitions don’t stop with the Olympic 800m and 4x400m golds she won at Tokyo 2020. An exceptional talent at both 400 and 800m, Mu has set her sights on two of athletics’ rarest achievements.

One is the 400/800m Olympic double - a feat only ever accomplished by one athlete in the history of the Games: Cuban legend Alberto Juantorena.

The other is nothing less than a world record.

“We’re going to put my name on the list of the two people that have accomplished that, because I want to do it,” Mu said in an interview with TeamUSA.org.

“I’m also going to break the 800 world record, eventually. Not even eventually, we’re going to break it.”

The young athlete speaks with a strength of character that belies her years, however, for someone with such big dreams, big confidence is nothing short of a must.

In the Tokyo 2020 Olympic final, Mu sported a red barrette emblazoned with the word ‘confident’. It was a signal to the world of her state of mind at the time.

“The reason why I'm an Olympic champ is because I had confidence,” she told Olympics.com. “If I didn't have that confidence coming into this, then I wouldn't have competed the way I did. I would have this medal around my neck…

“This is me. That word defines me.”

Athing Mu wins Tokyo 2020 800m final 
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The roots of success

It’s hard not to make comparisons when it comes to Athing Mu. Whether that’s to the greats of athletics, history makers such as Manning, or athletes who have become the face of their sport - such as USA legend Allyson Felix.

Another comparison is with those who, while their paths have been vastly different, share similarities in their backgrounds with Mu.

Mu’s parents hail from South Sudan and moved to the USA where they raised a family of seven children. Her parents worked blue-collar jobs to support the family and their contribution to her success is something she’ll never forget.

As she explained: “I'm doing everything I can to be the Olympian, to be an Olympic champion because I know that I'm doing it for more than just myself.

“You know, my parents, they did everything just to get me here. So I'm going to do everything to help our whole family.”

At Tokyo 2020, the IOC Refugee Olympic Team included numerous athletes from South Sudan, including one in the 800m, Rose Lokonyen Nathike who finished eighth in her heat.

And Mu has nothing but positive thoughts about the team, who contributed so much to the Games and shone a light on the plight of refugees across the world.

“I have a whole lot of respect for them for just coming out here and competing the way that they do, regardless of what their situation is,” she said. “I think it’s extremely incredible.”

The future starts now

Mu is just getting started on her journey. But with dreams to fulfil and goals to reach, the future starts now.

This year she has the opportunity to add world gold to her Olympic titles, when the World Athletics Championships take place in Oregon between 15 and 24 July 2022.

The Hayward Field track is the very same one she set the American 800m record of 01:55.04 in August 2021, just two weeks after the Olympic Games.

She is inching closer to the world record of 1:53.28 that was set in 1983. It remains the oldest-standing individual world record in athletics.

Who knows which of her goals will be reached first. She has fast-tracked herself onto the elite scene with such speed and confidence that all her dreams seem within sight.

Rather than speculate, it’s easier to leave it to her own words.

“If I go into anything, whether that’s on the track or outside of the track, with the mindset of being able to accomplish something, then I’ll get that thing done.”

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