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Inside Lane: Teen Phenom Athing Mu Is Keeping Everything in Perspective

16-year-old Athing Mu won a USATF title and set an American record this indoor season—but she’d be the first to tell you she’s got a long journey ahead.

It’s easy to forget that Athing Mu is just sixteen years old. The lithe 5’ 11” middle-distance runner set an American record this year in the 600m at the USATF Indoor Championships. Her indoor PRs litter the U.S. prep all-time lists in everything from the 400m (#5, 52.55) to the 800m (#4, 2:03.98), and that #1 rank in the 600m (1:23.57). Last fall, she earned silver in the 800m final at the Youth Olympic Games. She’s an AAU Junior Olympic champion dozens of times over.

But the Trenton Track Club athlete is not untouchable. Just two weeks after winning USAs, she was outkicked on March 10th at New Balance Nationals Indoor in the 800m title race to Stevens Point High School freshman Roisin Willis.

When I spoke to Mu, she was upbeat. There was no trace of disappointment or anger in her voice while she spoke about the near-miss of her almost perfect season. Instead, the high school junior was startlingly level-headed about the media attention, the will-she-won’t-she of whether she’ll go pro straight out of high school, and even the prospect of next year’s Olympic Games—the real ones.

For a teen phenom in a sport that likes to drown its young champions in pressure, Mu has everything under control.

What’s your mindset like right now?

I’m just ready for outdoor. I’m really satisfied with how everything went. It’s been a really long season and I think I accomplished a lot of things within two or three months. I’m happy with how this whole thing went.

Let’s go back to the USATF Indoor Championship… what were your expectations for that race?

I really just wanted to be competitive. My only major goal was to break the high school record [1:27.13, Sammy Watson 2017] because I was so close to it at VA Showcase [1:28.54]. That was my main priority. If I made it to finals, I wanted to be competitive and try to place well enough to medal.

What was your strategy?

Starting, I wanted to make sure I got out. Not as hard as I did in the semi-finals but still well enough so that when we were breaking in, I’d be in the front or be on the shoulder of whoever is in front. Going into the second lap, just not slow down, run around the same pace as the first lap. Around 300m or so, start making my move. And the last 250m, really go and use whatever I had left to finish.

When Raevyn [Rogers] made a move to get around you, what was going through your head?

Really, I was just like, ‘Okay, I’ve done this before, so now I actually have to do the work and not falter or fall back, just challenge her.’ Whenever anyone comes up on you in a race, you’re a little bit scared. But I was just really excited to see what I could do and try to run to the finish.

What was your reaction to winning and breaking the American record?

I remember running in lane two because I thought she was right next to me, so I didn’t want to trip her. Winning the gold, I was completely shocked. I didn’t expect that to happen at all.

[The American record] was mind-blowing to me. I wasn’t even thinking about getting the American record. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s another high school record!’ But obviously increasing it by a lot, that’s what I was really excited for.

When I looked back and it said ‘AR,’ I knew it was an American record.

That just took me to another level. Like… Oh man, this is crazy.

photo: Kevin Morris

What was your training like between USAs and New Balance?

It’s been the same as it’s really been the whole season. We did 200m repeats probably twice to work on my 800m form going into New Balance. And strength with 1ks and 600s.

The 200m workout was 10 [reps] in 28 seconds with 2:30 rest. I’m mostly walking a 200m for the rest.

I did mile repeats a couple times… Tuesday [before New Balance]. Based on how I feel, I’ll do four or five reps, four minutes rest or how I feel. The last one, I just walked a 200m and got back to the next one. It’s around cross country pace… maybe like six minute pace. I don’t really time them, I just do it based on how I felt.

A typical training week is two or three workouts per week, distance in between. We keep [mileage] low, I never do more than seven miles. Mileage is probably less than 20 miles per week, Monday through Friday. I don’t do a long run.

How are you feeling about the New Balance Nationals race?

Honestly, I just wanted to come and end my season well. PRing was my main goal. I wanted to break 2:03. If that would have come up, I would have been happy.

I wasn’t really that eager to break the national record [2:01.78, Sammy Watson, 2017] but I guess it was on my mind because it’s been talked about ever since USAs. I wasn’t really crazy about breaking it. I wanted to come out, run my race and do the best I could. I didn’t think I couldn’t do it, I just know that it takes time and that was only my third 800m of the season so I wasn’t really there there yet. [She finished with a PR of 2:05:86]

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

I wanted to run my race the best I could do. My legs felt pretty heavy before running. That’s why the race went the way it went. That’s one thing I can’t really change. I did the best I could.

How have you been handling the media attention?

I’ve been doing a lot of media ever since USAs. It’s kind of stopped now. It hasn’t been really hard because I’ve had my coaches with me the whole time. It hasn’t been really crazy. I’ve done [media] before, it wasn’t this many but i just keep it casual and just talk the way i would with anyone else.

Did you have thoughts of going pro after winning USAs?

I definitely want to run in college. I think the ultimate goal is to go pro, but I want to keep it as an amateur for now.

Do you look at other examples of girls who went pro early—some right out of high school, or Sydney McLaughlin and Sammy Watson doing one year of college and turning pro—and thought about how your journey might be the same?

Yes, I think that’s what all athletes do, is to see what athletes ran before us and see how their things go. But at the end of the day, no one’s story is the same. One person may have gone pro out of high school or done one year of college and that’s not exactly… I can’t say what will happen because it will fall into place by itself. We’ll just have to see where it goes in the future.

What are your goals for the outdoor season?

I basically ran all my PRs indoors except the 400m. I want to just come out outdoor and PR from my indoor times. That’s really the main goal. If a record comes with it, I’ll take a record but the ultimate goal is just to PR.

Who are some athletes you idolize?

I really love Madeline Manning. The first [American] women’s 800 meter runner to win the gold in the Olympics [at the 1968 Mexico City Games]. I hope one day I can be like that.

Do you look up to someone like Sammy Watson, since she was the big high school 800m runner before you?

I think it’s pretty casual, like, ‘Oh, okay, she did this, that’s good.’ I don’t really look up to her. I feel like that’s kind of weird because she’s only a couple years older than me. I like to see what she does.

What about Ajee’ Wilson? Or do you think of them as your competition?

I don’t think of any 800m runners as competitors, I think of them as normal people. If we hit the track, we’re just racing. For this whole season, I really actually got to know Ajee’ Wilson and so it’s pretty casual between us. We’re buddies, I guess you could say now.

Were you intimidated to race her at first?

No. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna get a fast one in, so I’m happy.’

Have you always had a chill attitude like that about racing?

No, not really. I feel like coming into this year, I’m actually finding out how to control… not control but stay positive and keep myself relaxed and things like that in running.

Back in October when I ran at Youth Olympic Games, which was my first international meet with track and field, that was one of my most nerve-wracking moments ever. Running in semis, I was so scared and nervous and I felt like everyone could see it on my face. Going into finals, I was like, ‘Okay, you know what… whatever happens, happens and this is all for fun.’

How did you change your mentality? Did a coach or anyone else say something to you?

It was me changing my mentality. I feel like no matter what anyone tells you, you have to really understand yourself and let yourself come to a realization that you are good enough.

Do you have any motivational quotes or things you tell yourself?

Our track club motto is “Running for the fun of it” so that’s been reflected on me—always have fun. You do it because you love it. It’s not a job yet, so you don’t have to be so hard on yourself. That’s what always takes off the nerves when I go into races.

When and how did you get your start in track?

I fell into it when I was younger. My oldest brother was running for Trenton Track Club with Coach Jennings. They had practices at Trenton High and I’d go with him. I was playing around the track, really, and then eventually was put on the team and I’ve just been there ever since. I got into training with Coach Jennings when I was 10.

My oldest brother ran at Dickinson for a year or two. My [other] older brother Malual Mu is at Penn State. He was state champ in the mile [in high school].

Where does your drive to compete come from?

I think really recently, I just found out that I really actually love the sport and feel like I’m actually really good at it. Pushing to my fullest potential is something I really want to do to find out how far I can go and what my body can do.

Are you hoping to make the Olympic team next year?

If it’s within God’s plan, that would be the most epic thing ever. That would be awesome. I don’t think about it too much, I just go with the flow. Let things fall into place.

What would you tell your freshman year self?

You’re going to be great!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.