USA track prodigies Athing Mu and Sha'Carri Richardson ready for the big time

An extra year to prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has opened the door a little further for two of the USA's brightest young runners to make the team.

By ZK Goh

Remember the names Athing Mu and Sha'Carri Richardson.

The USA track and field athletics pair were gearing up for the U.S. Olympic trials which should have been held later this month, but like everyone else now, have an extra year to prepare for the biggest competition of their lives so far.

For 800m specialist Mu and sprinter Richardson, the extra time is surely an advantage: Mu is still only 17 while Richardson is 20.

This crucial extra experience and development could make all the difference in fulfilling their Olympic dreams at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.

Young record-breakers

"This whole time period of uncertainty, it’s time to mentally get yourself together and physically get yourself ready instead of rushing everything," Mu told the New York Times just after finishing an exam. The second-generation American, whose family moved to the States from Sudan, is preparing to start university at Texas A&M.

Mu is considered one of the fastest teenagers in the country at the moment. She broke the U.S. national indoor record over 600 metres last year aged just 16. Her time of 1:23.57 is also the second-fastest time in history. She followed that up by reaching the 800m final in the outdoor nationals, finishing fifth in a race won by world bronze medallist Ajee' Wilson.

Richardson, meanwhile, broke the 30-year-old National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) 100m record last year, lowering it to 10.75 seconds. That also became the new world under-20 record (pending ratification), the first time that mark has been lowered since 1977. It is also the ninth-best 100m of all time. On the same day, Richardson also lowered Allyson Felix's world under-20 record over 200m to 22.17 seconds (also pending ratification).

Living up to the hype

Both runners have enjoyed much fanfare in recent years.

Some of Mu's six siblings ran at the Trenton Track Club in New Jersey, and it was there that she caught the eye of coaches. Since the age of nine, she has won national titles in various age groups.

"She’s super talented," Ajee' Wilson told the Washington Post at last year's U.S. nationals. "The biggest thing is, she doesn’t have any fear when she goes out and races. She’s proven that she can hang with the best of us."

Louisiana State University alumnus Richardson decided to turn pro after 2019, a season which saw her win the NCAA's prestigious The Bowerman award for best track and field athlete.

Accepting a professional contract ended her collegiate ability, but set tongues wagging among athletics fans eager to see her compete internationally.

She didn't disappoint. The Dallas star's debut on the international stage at the 2019 Stanford Diamond League saw her finish fourth in the 100m final, and her performances throughout the year earned her a nomination for World Athletics' Female Rising Star award.

"Intimidation is a factor"

Mu's coach, Al Jennings, has tried to keep her fresh by having her pull out of high school meets. But the Olympics, and running against far more experienced athletes, is a different beast.

"Intimidation is a factor," Mu admitted to the New York Times.

After her success in 2019, she was brought back down with a bump this February when she failed to qualify for the final of the 800m at the indoor nationals.

It was something that has helped Mu focus on herself.

"The way I think is whatever happens, happens," Mu said. "Especially when I am running with people who might be better than I am at one event or another."

Richardson also felt the strain of a long season towards the tail end of 2019, finishing eighth in the 100m nationals and missing the cut for the World Championships roster.

"I take it as a lesson," she told FloTrack after failing to make it out of the 200m heats at nationals. "This is not a reason to count me out. When I'm at my peak and I'm fresh, I'm definitely a force to be reckoned with."

Increased profiles

With the Tokyo Games postponed, both women have a chance to get even better, while increasing their profiles at the same time.

"Media-wise and popularity-wise, I’ve noticed a lot more people actually know who I am," Mu said last year after that 600m indoor win.

One of her other coaches in Trenton, Bernice Mitchell, has been turning down sponsors, trying to keep Mu focused on running and school.

Richardson, meanwhile, has been chosen as one of a number of young athletes to be profiled in a new documentary series hosted by U.S. Women's National Team soccer star Megan Rapinoe called Prodigy. Other names starring in that series include Olympic champion snowboarder Red Gerard and world record backstroke swimmer Regan Smith.

Both women could well make a splash on the world scene next year in Tokyo. Don't bet against them.