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The Present is a Gift, and Athing Mu is Making the Most of It

“Your time is now” is Mu’s oft-repeated mantra, one she credits with changing her mindset and improving her performance.

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For Athing Mu, life after Olympic gold has pretty much returned to normal. She’s back in College Station taking sophomore courses at Texas A&M, attending track practice with the Aggies as their newest volunteer assistant coach.

She might get recognized a bit more around campus and the grocery store—but even that’s nothing new for the 5′10″ star, who was a standout in New Jersey track circles long before her incredible Olympic summer in Tokyo, where she won gold medals in the 800 meters and 4 x 400-meter relay.

It wasn’t so long ago that a stranger at the grocery store actually changed her perspective on the sport—and, you could even say, her life.

“I remember I stopped at the store and one woman came up to me and said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re a really good athlete. I just want you to know, it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can do it now, no matter where you’re at or what you’re up against.’

“She basically said, ‘your time is now,’ and that’s where I got that statement from,” Mu says of her oft-repeated mantra. “That changed my mindset because I was letting things go away, not in the worst way ever because I still competed well, but I realize now that that mindset I had a couple years back definitely played a role in how those years went versus how this past year went for me.”

Mu, who stormed to an American record of 1:55.21 in Tokyo (and later lowered her mark to 1:55.04 at the Prefontaine Classic), says she hasn’t always been the self-assured teenager who wore a red barrette spelling “CONFIDENT” in the Olympic final. When she first started rising to the top of the sport as a high schooler, she was quick to temper expectations.

“‘I’m only 16, I have 10-plus more years to accomplish this goal,’” she remembers thinking. “Rather than looking at it like, ‘I can accomplish this right now if I put my mind to it and I want to do it.’”

Mu graduated high school in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and headed to Texas A&M to train under legendary sprint coach Pat Henry. The break from competition and adjustment to the collegiate ranks changed her perspective on the sport, and her role in it.

“I was kind of going through it,” she says of life before the pandemic, “debating, deciding whether or not track and field was fun for me… After coming back to it, I regained that love and [realized], ‘Wow, this is what I was supposed to be doing that entire time, why am I even questioning it?’”

Before their first meet, Henry told the team, “We don’t know if this is going to be our first or our last meet this year, so don’t let the day get away.”

Mu took that sentiment to heart. So did the rest of the Aggie women, who banded together to earn team runner-up honors at the NCAA Championships for both indoor and outdoor track.

“I think I used that toward every single race I had this entire season, which helped me progress, and that’s where the confidence came in,” she says. “Seeing all the success I had one meet at a time, going out and running my best and not worrying about anything else, just trying to get the best out of the day that I could.”

That mindset drove her to break six collegiate records, capture three individual NCAA Championship titles, break the American outdoor record, dominate the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games 800-meter finals, and cap her Games with the fastest split of the 4 x 400-meter relay: an incredible 48.32.

She says the relay was her favorite moment of the Olympics, especially because she got to run anchor.

“That was the best thing that ever happened,” she says. “We had the greatest athletes in the world, in history. To be in that and also to be the anchor… Them choosing me to be in that position was like, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ And I also ran a fast time, so overall it was great. I appreciated that the most out of everything and being part of history tied the whole knot.”

an overhead view of Athing Mu being passed the baton during the 2020 Olympics
An overhead view of the baton exchange between Dalilah Muhammad and Athing Mu of Team United States in the Women’ s 4 x 400m Relay Final on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Mu focused on the 400 meters during her collegiate season, and likely would have contended for individual gold had she contested the event at the Olympics.

Next Olympics, she may just run the 400 and 800 meters. Only one person has ever won both events at the Olympics: Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena in 1976.

“We were talking about this earlier in the year, my coach and I, running the 4-8 double,” she told media after her historic gold, the second in history for an American woman. “Most definitely. We’re going to put my name on the list of the two people that have accomplished that. Because I want to do it.”

She also wasn’t shy about declaring her intent to set the world record for 800 meters one day, which was set at 1:53.28 in 1983 by Jarmila Kratochvílová of Czechoslovakia.

But these are long-term goals for Mu. For now, the 19-year-old is focused on defending her global title on home turf next year at the world championships, which will be held in Eugene, Oregon.

“For it to be the world champs next year and for it to be in Eugene on U.S. soil with everyone actually able to be there, it should be a great experience for all of us,” she says.

This profile was first published in the Winter 2022 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2022” which celebrates 15 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.