Athing Mu Talks World Record, Modeling, Possible Early Retirement and Reveals She Was Hurt at 2022 Worlds

Mu has unfinished business in the sport, but said she has contemplated quitting running three times, and has wanted to be a model since she was young.

March 28, 2023

Olympic 800-meter champion Athing Mu is coming off her first full professional season in 2022, and it scarcely could have gone much better. She won nine of her 10 races (a DNF in the Wanamaker Mile at Millrose was her only blemish) and ran a world-leading season’s best of 1:56.30 in the World Championship final in Eugene to earn the gold medal in one of the most thrilling races of the meet. If she retired today, at age 20, she would retire as a legend of American middle distance running with a World and Olympic gold, the American record, and an undefeated 800m career as a professional.

Mu has not competed since Worlds eight months ago and has made some significant changes since then. In November, she announced she was leaving Milton Mallard, the Texas A&M assistant who guided her to Olympic and world titles the last two years, to move to Los Angeles to be coached by Bobby Kersee — one of the world’s top sprint coaches but a man with limited experience guiding top 800m runners. Mu also changed agencies, leaving Wes Felix to sign with Alliance Sports, a management company that exclusively represents NFL players aside from Mu and her boyfriend, Brandon Miller, who represented the US at the World Championships in the 800m last summer.

Mu signed up for one race during the 2023 indoor season — the Millrose Games in New York on February 11 — but wound up withdrawing five days before the race with a vague explanation about wanting to focus on outdoors. As a result, it has been a while since the track world has heard from Mu. But on March 17, she appeared on the Pivot Podcast, hosted by retired NFL players Ryan ClarkFred Taylor, and Channing Crowder, and the conversation was compelling.

During the episode, Mu revealed that she was hurt when she was competing at the 2022 Worlds (which perhaps explains why she didn’t race at all in the rest of 2022), semi-seriously suggested she may retire early to pursue a modeling career, and said she believes it’s possible to break Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 800m world record of 1:53.28, which has stood for almost 40 years. Here are some of the most revealing highlights from the conversation. The full episode can be viewed below.

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Mu says she was hurt at the 2022 Worlds

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After winning the world title in July, Mu said she “just physically wasn’t where I would like to be” but did not elaborate. On the Pivot, she still didn’t say specifically what was bothering her but admitted that she was hurt at Worlds. She also said the pressure of competing in Eugene in front of US fans was far greater than competing in front of an empty stadium at the Olympics.

“There’s always going to be pressure,” Mu said. “And I didn’t really feel the pressure until last year at World Championships and that is because I came off the Olympic year [as] Olympic gold medalist. And so of course, they’re putting that right in everyone’s faces. Whenever you hear 800 meters, they’re always like, ‘Let’s see how the 800-meter American record holder holds this off or does this and does that.’ So it’s always out there. Being the defending champion and the person that people are aiming for whenever I hit the track, it’s definitely a lot of pressure. And last year, I kind of was a little hurt at Worlds so that added another toll.”

On scratching from Millrose: “I don’t think there was a ton of time to really get into it”

Mu was considering racing this indoor season — we were told she was potentially going to run at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on February 4, and she was entered at Millrose on February 11 before withdrawing — but said she ultimately chose not to compete as she was still adjusting to training under Kersee’s system.

“When it comes to being in the position I’m in and coming into a new training group, starting a new training regimen, there’s a lot to adjust to,” Mu said. “And I don’t think there was a ton of time to really get into it as much. And with our goal being the World Championships in August, we have months to really get prepared and go out and show ourselves. But it really wasn’t the time in February.”

“There’s probably three moments where I really was like, I don’t even know if I want to do this”

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Mu said that while she is grateful for how track has changed her life and for the opportunities the sport has provided her, she has come close to quitting on multiple occasions. But she would remember the hard work she put into becoming the best from an early age — she began running with the Trenton Track Club at age six — and decided she did not want that effort to go to waste.

“Through the years, there’s probably three moments where I really was like, I don’t even know if I want to do this,” Mu said. “And looking back at those times and realizing that those were moments that could have broken it all yet I decided to keep going, I decided to persevere for whatever reason, I don’t know why I did it. But I decided to keep going…Whether I was tired of running because it wasn’t fun or I was bored of not having friends or I wanted to do something else, I mean I just see the commitment that I put into it.”

Mu said one of those times came during the summer of 2020. Mu did not get to experience being on a high school team as she chose to run for her club rather than Trenton Central High School. Once she graduated, she was then forced to train alone during COVID lockdowns and said she almost reached a breaking point,

“I knew after high school and COVID hit, I was down bad,” Mu said. “I didn’t really want to run track anymore and I think it’s because it kind of got not fun anymore because I was training by myself. I was running in all of these big meets on my own. I was running with professionals when I was 17, 16, so it was a lot of pressure that was going on me. And when that time came, COVID, I think everyone had a moment to just rethink every part of their life, which was kind of good and bad. And I got to a point where I thought this might not be my calling, I may not need to run track & field. I would love to just go get a regular job and see where life takes me then.”

Mu said everything changed once she arrived on Texas A&M’s campus. Being part of a team made track a much more enjoyable experience.

“That was literally the moment when I realized, okay, this is where I’m really supposed to be at,” Mu said. “Track & field has made me so happy through the years, it has gained me so many opportunities to meet new people, travel to new places. [At the time, I thought], I don’t know what this next year at college is going to bring me, but I know the one thing that I’ve been missing out on was an environment of community. And I know A&M is going to bring me community.”

Mu has modeling aspirations and has joked about retiring early to pursue them

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Mu said that when she was 11 years old, she would practice modeling in her kitchen and since then has always wanted to be part of the fashion world. Last fall, she walked the runway during New York Fashion Week and she said it’s something she could see herself doing once she retires from track — which could be sooner than you think.

“Modeling is 100% in my eye’s view,” Mu said. “I honestly, I don’t know if I should say this – I make jokes all the time about me retiring within the next two years and just going to walk the runway. But I would love to go walk the runway, do editorial shoots. I would love to do anything in the fashion world.”

Mu’s passion for modeling was a theme of the episode and co-host Ryan Clark noticed what was apparent to anyone watching: right now, modeling appears to excite her more than track.

Clark: “The way you talk about having an opportunity to model as opposed to the way you talk about track & field, two totally different lights in your eyes.”

Mu: “100%.”

Clark: “Every time we mention modeling or walking the runway, you just light up.”

Mu: “Yeah.”

Later, Clark asked Mu when she knew it would be time to retire from track.

“Uh…When I have no time to run track because I’m modeling too much?” Mu said. “That’s literally it. I don’t know. Just checking off my goals. I think I am definitely happy with what I’ve done so far but there are some more things that I want to get done. So if I do get a chance to accomplish these goals like win a double at a World Championships or whatever the case may be, I think realistically, because I know that there is something else I want to do, I would be okay with letting it go a little sooner than maybe someone else would. And because I’ve been running for so many years, then I believe I would be absolutely fine with just taking the next step to do another career or be part of the sport as an ambassador or something.”

A 400/800 double is an exciting prospect for track fans and 2023 would seem to be an ideal year for Mu to attempt it given she has a bye into the 800 at Worlds as the defending champion — meaning she’d only have to run the 400 at USAs.

“I truly believe that the [world] record can be broken”

Though Mu dropped hints about retiring early, she has another big goal remaining in the sport: Jarmila Kratochvílová’s longstanding 800m world record of 1:53.28. Mu, whose pb of 1:55.04 ranks #8 on the all-time list, said it is “100 percent” something she has thought about chasing.

“This has been a new thought in the past couple of years because once again, I’m not into the sport as much as I should be, but when I did see it and I’ve seen how long it [has stood], once again, there is no limit in track & field,” Mu said. “You can go as far, you can go as long, you can go faster. There’s no end to it. So after hitting all these fast times, it’s like, okay, what now? And I truly believe that the record can be broken just being fit, being in the right environment, having a pacer or not having a pacer, just kind of having all the things put together, I definitely think it’s able to be accomplished. And with the new generation of athletes, I think we’re able to push one another to that super fast time.”

The crew broke down Mu’s comments on this week’s Track Talk Podcast. Full episode here. Video of Mu highlights below:

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