Unbeaten in 13 races, Athing Mu is the future of athletics in America
Three years have passed since Athing Mu was last beaten in an 800-meter race. In that time, she’s been crowned American champion, Olympic champion and world champion in the distance – all before the age of 21.
The extraordinary start to her professional running career has led many, with good reason, to view Mu as the most exciting athlete in track and field at the moment.
When she held off a late challenge from Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson to win gold at the world championships last year, Mu became the youngest woman in history to own Olympic and world titles in an individual track and field event.
Given her meteoric rise and remarkable success since turning professional, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mu is feeling the weight of her past performances.
“There’s pressure, for sure,” she tells CNN Sport from Los Angeles, California, where she has recently moved for a new training program.
“And not only from obviously the outside world, but for myself, too, knowing that I was able to do these two things the past two years – these really big, incredible things.”
It was January 2022 – 13 races ago – when Mu last failed to win an event of any distance.
She was scheduled to run at the Millrose Games in New York this month but withdrew several days before the event, saying she wanted to focus on the outdoor season and the upcoming world championships.
“I would love to keep that streak,” says Mu. “I think the main thing for me is to continue to believe and know that no matter what happens, the only person going to be affected by whatever the result is, whether good or bad, is going to be myself.
“I know the mental challenges that I have to go through. I just have to help relieve myself mentally on that aspect by knowing that nothing is perfect and whatever happens is going to happen.”
The athlete most likely to end Mu’s streak appears to be Hodgkinson, who ran a world-leading time of 1:23.41 in the 600 meters last month.
The 20-year-old Mu is just three months younger than her rival and to date holds the bragging rights in their head-to-head over 800 meters.
She raced clear of Hodgkinson – and the rest of the field – in the final straight at the Tokyo Olympics, then edged out the Brit after a thrilling sprint finish at the world championships in Oregon last year.
“Whichever way it goes – whether she has the fastest time or I have the fastest time – it just reminds me of the friendly competition we have between one another, how that started a couple of years ago and how we’re still battling it out together,” says Mu.
Between them, we may one day see a new world record in the women’s 800 meters. The current mark of 1:53.28, set by the Czech Republic’s Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983, is the longest-standing outdoor world record in track and field.
Mu’s best time, set at the world championships, is almost two seconds outside that, but a healthy rivalry might help her on her way.
“I know battling it out [with Hodgkinson] is only going to be good for us individually,” says Mu, “and it’s going to be good as a collective goal in the 800 period because we’re kind of bringing it back to the old days when it was a key event.
“It’s nice to see this event move on as the future goes.”
Regardless of what her future holds, Mu’s incredible winning streak has already made the athletics world sit up and take notice.
Her height and long, effortless stride make for an elegant running style over middle-distance events, though Mu has competed in everything from 200 meters up to the mile as a junior and professional.
“I see poetry in motion – just the smoothest runner I’ve probably ever seen,” 400-meter hurdles world record holder Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone has said about her relay teammate. “She has so much ahead of her.”
Mu and McLaughlin-Levrone, who both train under famed track coach Bob Kersee in Los Angeles, were part of the gold-medal-winning 4x400-meter relay team at the Tokyo Olympics, while another member of the team, the recently-retired Allyson Felix, acted as a mentor for Mu before and during the Games.
“She’s probably the person that was in contact with the younger athletes that were moving in as she was going out,” says Mu.
“She’s one of those athletes who wants to give back, and I can definitely tell because she spoke so well about the younger athletes competing with her.”
But before Mu was able to turn to Felix – the USA’s most decorated track and field athlete – for advice and inspiration, she had her family.
The second-youngest of seven children, she grew up watching her siblings excel at track running during high school. Before long, her chance arrived.
“Honestly, I kind of just fell in line,” says Mu. “By the time it was my turn, everyone was or did have their time in athletics. It was just in time to support me, put me into the sport and teach me their ways.”
Mu was born in Trenton, New Jersey, a year after her family had emigrated to the United States from South Sudan. She often alludes to her family heritage, notably by carrying both the American and South Sudanese flags when she returned home from the Olympics.
“My whole entire family, including me, is South Sudanese, and I have that blood in me as well,” says Mu. “I definitely know that my mom especially appreciates it, along with my dad, to still be representing and not leaving that part of me too far away.”
It’s unclear when the first race of the year will be for Mu. She hopes to run more events outside her favored 800-meter distance in the future, and there are also the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, to target in August.
It looks set to be another big year ahead.
“Of course, I would love to be the world champion again,” says Mu, before quickly reeling in her expectations.
“I’ve moved on to this new environment [in LA], new training, new coach – it’s a lot to adjust to. I’m just taking it slow – day by day, practice by practice, meet by meet – and seeing where this year takes me.”