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In the U.S. championship finals today, Athing Mu utilized her go-to strategy for the 800: She went straight to the front from the gun, and then let a separate race unfold behind her.
“That’s how I always run,” she said. “I don’t even know how fast we were running. When you’re in the final it’s just about being competitive.”
Something out of the ordinary did happen today, though. In the final 50 meters, for just a moment, Ajee’ Wilson, the indoor world champion from this year, came up on Mu’s shoulder and passed her, just by a step or two. It was like it snapped Mu back into consciousness, and she responded immediately with took a few fast steps—and it was all over. She won the race in 1:57.16. Wilson finished second in 1:57.23.
When asked how it felt to be passed (since it doesn’t happen very often), Mu laughed out loud. “I mean, it’s a race,” she said. People pass people in race—but it’s usually not Mu who gets passed.
“I got a little excited and went for it a little too early,” Wilson said. “I knew I was going to get a response [from Mu]. I just tried to hold it. I knew I had a good chance of winning.”
Despite being the Olympic champion and American record holder, Mu said she’s never really felt like she’s had a target on her back until today. It’s as though winning is expected, and she can only fail. “It’s just something I’m gonna have to get used to,” she said.
Mu’s boyfriend, Brandon Miller, who was the NCAA 800 champion this year, qualified for worlds right before she began her race. Somebody from the crowd called them a power couple, and she laughed.
The race today was uncharacteristically tight. The eight women in the final ran close together for most of the race. People usually have different agendas in the 800: Sprinter-type runners have to run the first lap really hard, and athletes with a longer distance background have to hold on for dear life and try to maintain a fast pace in the late stages of the race.
Today was different. Nearly every one ran a 57-second opening lap. Less than a second separated first and last at the halfway point. There weren’t any dramatic changes of position: no crazy last-to-first surges, no abrupt first-to-last burnouts.
The only exception may be Raevyn Rogers, who pushed from sixth up to third on the homestretch. That’s characteristic for Rogers. She did it in Tokyo last summer when she earned an Olympic bronze medal. Today her strong finish clinched her third in 1:57.96.
“I wanted to make sure I could finish well,” she said of her big move into world championships qualifying position. “Coming home is always a lot of pressure in itself,” she said, referencing her return to Hayward Field after competing for the University of Oregon when she was in the NCAA. “But I’m back, baby. I’m ready. It’s a dream to compete at the world champs at your alma mater.” Rogers is a permanent installation at Hayward Field, thanks to her face being displaying on the giant tower that overlooks the track.
For the first time ever at a U.S. championship, everyone in the final ran under 2 minutes. The NCAA champion this year, Kristie Schoffield of Boise State, finished last in 1:59.80, her first time breaking 2 minutes. Sometimes major achievements can be buried in the results sheets—especially when the trio of Mu, Wilson, and Rogers are at the top of the page.