Teenager Athing Mu is Golden With 1:55:21 800m American Record

July 30, 2021 to August 08, 2021

By LetsRun.com
August 3, 2021

TOKYO — This is not supposed to happen. It is not supposed to look so easy. There are supposed to be setbacks, growing pains, rookie mistakes.

Teenagers are not supposed to show up for their freshman year of college, roll through the NCAA, roll through the US Olympic Trials, lead wire-to-wire in an Olympic final and win the gold medal in an American record of 1:55.21 (a 57.82-57.39 negative-split, no less).

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Yet that is what 19-year-old Athing Mu did tonight in Tokyo to close out one of the greatest seasons ever by an American middle-distance runner. Mu was never seriously challenged after opening up a gap on the final turn and was followed home for silver by another 19-year-old, Keely Hodgkinson, who set a British record of 1:55.88 for the silver. American Raevyn Rogers, who was in seventh place midway down the home straight, passed four women on the way in to take the bronze in a personal best of 1:56.81, edging out Brit Jemma Reekie by nine-hundredths of a second.

With the gold medal, Mu joins one of the most exclusive clubs in American distance running, becoming just the third American woman to claim Olympic gold in an event 800 meters or longer (Madeline Manning Mims in the 800 in 1968 and Joan Benoit Samuelson in the marathon in 1984 are the others).

*Longer race video here for US visitors

Overhyping prodigies is essentially a cottage industry in American track & field. We are obsessed with what could be, and by the time what could be morphs into what is — inevitably accompanied by frustration, injuries, or stagnation, even in the successful cases — we have moved on to the next one. 

Yet Mu proved immune to any such setbacks. Year after year, she dropped her personal best, from 2:10.85 at age 14 in 2016 to 2:01.17 to finish 5th in the US final as a 17-year-old in 2019. About the only thing that could stop her was the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and when she returned in 2021 for her freshman season at Texas A&M, it was with a joyful exuberance all young athletes should possess. Mu never lost that, not as her season took her to ever greater heights and, eventually, the sport’s grandest stage.

“I’m definitely always smiling,” Mu said. “One reason why I’m here at the Olympic Games, being an Olympic champion, is because I have fun with what I do, I enjoy every single moment especially this past year, being in college, I had so much fun and I carry that always.”

The Race – Mu Goes Wire to Wire

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Championship 800-meter running is one of track & field’s great tests, full of split-second decisions about tactics and positioning, all of which have to be made at high speeds. Many terrific athletes have become undone by it. But when you are as good as Athing Mu is, when you are so clearly better than everyone else in the field, it actually becomes simple: get to the front and force a pace that only you can run. No need to worry about when or where to pass someone when no one can keep up with you.

Watching Mu race, it almost seems too easy. Why doesn’t everyone just run like that? Well, because it requires a level of talent that arrives once in a generation. It’s how David Rudisha ran, and it is how Athing Mu ran tonight, and yes, that comparison is appropriate because both are now members of the same exclusive club.

Mu took the race out quickly (57.82) and led at halfway — “57 is the sweet spot for the 800,” Mu said — but it was still slower than her opening lap at the US Olympic Trials (57.53), where she ran her previous pb of 1:56.07. Unlike the Olympic Trials, Mu would go even faster on the second lap, splitting 29.3 for her third 200 before slamming the door with an otherworldly 28.0 final 200.

By 120 to go, Mu had opened a gap that would not close, but behind her, a fierce battle was unfolding for the remaining two medals. With 200 to go, Hodgkinson, Natoya Goule, Habitam Alemu, and Great Britain’s Jemma Reekie were closely bunched behind Mu, with Reekie making a big push into second on the inside. She held that position coming off the final turn and still looked destined for a medal even after Hodgkinson moved past her with 75 meters to go.

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But, just as she did in Doha two years ago to win silver, Raevyn Rogers was moving way faster than everyone else. Two meters off the back at the bell and still in 7th place with 50 meters to run, Rogers suddenly found herself in lane 7 with nothing but red track in front of her. At that point, a medal still wasn’t on her radar, but Rogers has been in this situation many times and smelled blood in the water with a fading Reekie to her inside.

“There was a split second, probably was like, 30 meters to go, I was like, I should try to get third,’ Rogers said. “You know, like, I should really go for it.”

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It paid off, as Rogers stormed past Reekie, who never saw her coming, to take the bronze in 1:56.81 and move to #4 on the all-time US list. In all, seven women broke 1:58 — just the fifth time that has happened, and the first time at the Olympics — with six of those seven setting personal bests.

Analysis and athlete reaction below results.

Results

POSCOUNTRYATHLETEMARK
1USAAthing MU1:55.21 NR
2GBRKeely HODGKINSON1:55.88 NR
3USARaevyn ROGERS1:56.81 PB
4GBRJemma REEKIE1:56.90 PB
5CHNChunyu WANG1:57.00 PB
6ETHHabitam ALEMU1:57.56 SB
7GBRAlexandra BELL1:57.66 PB
8JAMNatoya GOULE1:58.26

Quick take: The future is very bright in the 800

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There were a lot of question marks surrounding the women’s 800 this year. Intersex women with differences in sexual development (DSD) were no longer allowed to compete without lowering their testosterone, so the entire podium from the 2016 Olympics was gone. The all-time top 10 list is dominated by DSD women and suspected dopers.

Yet now the sport is led by two 19-year-olds who both ran in the 1:55s. This Olympic final was faster than any won by Caster Semenya and the top three here were all faster than the final in Rio. The future of the 800m is very bright.

“There’s not just one 19-year-old in the race, there’s two, which is unbelievable, but hopefully it stands for a good competitive [rivalry] 10-15 years ahead. I think [the rivalry] will be really good, and even faster times are on the horizon,” said Hodgkinson, who revealed that her father was a bit of a runner and did a marathon in 1996. When asked what his time was, she said that it was a “sore subject” and not what he wanted and she thought it was in the 3.5 to 4 hour range.

Quick take: Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson went from 2:01 to 1:55 in one calendar year

Athing Mu was a phenom in high school. She broke the American senior record for 600m and nearly broke the world best at 600m indoors. The only problem for Mu was there is no 600m distance at the Olympics. She insisted she was an 800m runner, but her 800 results did not match her 600, as she “only” ran 2:01 while in high school and got 5th at USAs. Very, very good performances, but those are a couple of levels away from running 1:55 and winning the Olympic gold. At the start of the year, it would best to assume 2024 or 2028 would be the Olympics where Mu would shine. The timeline got shifted in a major way.

Hodgkinson’s improvement was similar. Prior to 2021, her pb was 2:01.16. Now it’s 1:55.88. Here are their PRs at various ages. The chart is a little misleading as Mu’s birthday (June 8) comes in the middle of the outdoor season.

PB Athing MuKeely H
PB at Age 152:06.592:06.85
PB at Age 162:01.382:04.26
PB at Age 172:01.172:03.40
PB at Age 181:57.732:01.73
PB at Age 191:55.211:55.88

Mu pointed to a couple of key factors in her training setup in College Station that propelled her from one of the best in the US in 2019 to the best in the world two years later. The first was training partners — growing up, she had been so much better than her Trenton Track Club teammates that she mostly trained alone. The second was hitting the gym.

“Never, ever, ever have I been in the weight room before college,” Mu said. “This is the first year I’ve done it so I think I got a little bit of gains.”

Mu also said she shifted her mentality this year.

“I used to say, oh my god I have so [many] years to go, and yeah I can do it later,” Mu said. “But I think this year I focused on just being out there and do what I can do, you know, no matter what age, no matter who I’m competing with”

Quick take: Huge Props to Mu’s coach Milton Mallard

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Texas A&M has established itself as 800m U. Donavan Brazier burst onto the scene there in 2016 and eventually set the American record. Then World Junior 800m champ Sammy Watson went to Texas A&M in 2018. They were coached by former world indoor 400m champ Alleyne Francique. Francique then left A&M in 2018 for undisclosed reasons and Mallard was brought in as an assistant coach. He was a former 100/200/400 runner who ran for the US at World Juniors in 1992. He took over and has had amazing success with the 800 runners. Watson won NCAAs in 2018, Jazmine Fray won in 2019, and while Mu didn’t win NCAAs this year at 800, we can forgive her as she just won the Olympic 800m gold medal (Mu ran the 400 at NCAAs indoor and outdoors). And don’t forget about Devin Dixon and Brandon Miller on the men’s side. 

Quick Take: Athing Mu is not close to done. She wants to go down in the history books by becoming the first woman to do the 400/800 double and says “we’re also gonna break the 800 world record eventually.”

Right now really isn’t the time to be looking forward. After all, Athing Mu just broke the American record to win the Olympic gold medal. For pretty much anyone on the planet, that would represent the absolute peak of their career — and that may well be the case for Mu.

But Mu is still only 19 and has only looked stronger the more she has raced in 2021. She could still run the 4×400 at this meet — Mu says she hasn’t heard one way or another, but the US relay coaches would be stupid not to use her given she is the US leader (49.57). And looking forward, Mu has even bigger goals than an Olympic title. 

She wants to pursue the 400/800 double at the next Olympics and wants to run even faster than she did tonight.

“We’re gonna put my name on the list of the two people that have accomplished that, because I want to do it,” Mu said (note: Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena is the only person to win both events at the Olympics, doing so in 1976; no woman has ever done it). “We’re also gonna break the 800 world record eventually. Not even eventually. We’re going to break it.”

Many have regarded the women’s 800 world record as unbreakable. Set by Jarmila Kratochvilova — who is widely assumed to have been using performance-enhancing drugs — in 1983, it stands at 1:53.28 and is the oldest WR in all of track & field. Even Semeny could not get close to it. But at this point, are you really going to put anything past Athing Mu?

Quick take: Keely Hodgkinson was more shocked that she broke Kelly Holmes’ British record than winning Olympic silver.

“I’m quite shocked about that time, but I couldn’t be happier,” said Holmes when asked about what was more of a surprise.

Quick Take Raevyn Rogers was really proud of what she accomplished and credited new coach Pete Julian for keeping things simple in her first season under him

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Rogers used her patented big last 100 kick to snag the bronze. She said sometimes she doesn’t realize how far back she is until she starts to move. She said the Olympics had felt similar to Worlds in terms of pressure in part because she tried to treat it like any other championship to keep the nerves down, but with about 30 meters left in tonight’s race, she thought to herself that she really ought to dig deep to snag that Olympic medal. 

She said she didn’t really have a race plan and credited coach Pete Julian for keeping things simple.

“He was like, you know, let’s just be more simple than complicated. Just be yourself and have fun. He was like, ‘I’m proud of you, just from the progression you’ve made…This is just the icing on the cake. Go out there and have fun.’ So to have him really behind me and just really pushed me to just be myself,” said Rogers.

When asked why she switched from Derek Thompson, who guided her to WC silver in 2019, to Julian in June of last year, she said there are just more resources with Julian’s group.

“I feel like both coaches are equally as talented and I was successful with both of them,” said Rogers. “[Now], there’s just more resources and I feel like it’s similar to collegiate structure. That’s what’s been helpful for me just having you know — although it’s not babysitting — but just having someone just hold you accountable. I feel like that accountability is what’s kind of led me to switching groups.”

Rogers was pleased to have won a medal on her mom’s birthday.

Another woman who wanted to win a medal for her mom on her birthday was Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, who ended up fading to last in the final 100 after running behind Mu for most of it. “I’m disappointed. It just didn’t happen today. I almost cried out there,” said Goule. 

Goule said she still believes in herself, “I know I can run [what] Athing ran [tonight]. I know it’s inside me.. I’m disappointed to not get a medal for my country on my mother’s birthday.”

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This is a flash recap. Much more to come from Tokyo after we talk to the athletes. If you want all the coverage from Tokyo including a daily podcast join our Supporters Club now, the most exclusive club for Olympic Track and Field coverage.

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