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American 800-meter phenom Athing Mu, 19, didn’t look like a rookie in her first Olympic final on Tuesday in Japan, winning the 800-meter gold medal in an American record, 1:55.21. Raevyn Rogers earned bronze for Team USA in a personal record, 1:56.81. And another teen from Great Britain, 19-year-old Keely Hodgkinson, won silver in 1:55.88.
“I wasn’t really putting gold on that, but as it got closer to the final today, I was like, ‘Yeah, we want gold,'” Mu said after the race. “It’s an accomplishment that I wanted off my list. I am just happy, blessed and excited to be here and took care of this experience as well as I could.”
— Emma Lee (@EmmaLeePhoto) August 3, 2021
Americans have waited a long time for a win in the 800 meters—it is the first Olympic medal in the event since 1988 and the second gold since Madeline Manning won in 1968. Mu, however, said that making history wasn’t on her mind. She simply was there to execute to the best of her ability, jump-starting her young career. Afterward, however, Mu and Rogers said they both have been in touch with the Manning.
“All of us ladies knew of Madeline Manning because she was the one and the only—and knowing that she’s African American adds a whole other pizzazz to it, so we’re really happy about that,” Mu said.
Mu, who wore a barrette in her hair that said “Confident,” which she happened upon during a shopping trip to Nordstrom in Los Angeles before traveling to Tokyo, took control of the race from the gun, leading nearly wire-to-wire, passing through the 400-meter mark in 57.82. At the bell lap she instantly surged to gap Natoya Goule of Jamaica, who ultimately finished eighth. Hodgkinson went with Mu, but was no match for the American who cruised into the finish line in the new national record with the signature control she’s consistently shown in every competition this season—in a negative split, no less, clocking 57.39 for the second lap.
“I wanted to go early from the front and not let anyone mess up my race plan. I just wanted to do my own thing,” Mu said. “It’s exactly what I have been doing in all my races. I just go out there and run. Whatever comes is going to come and I’m just going to go with them.”
Hodgkinson’s time is a new national record as well. She said she plans to celebrate with one “guilt-free” night at the pub.
“From European indoors to breaking some records to now the biggest stage on the world, still a junior is absolutely crazy,” Hodgkinson said. “And there’s not just one 19-year-old in the race, there is two, which is unbelievable. Hopefully it stems for a good competitive 10 to 15 years ahead and faster times on the horizon.”
With 50 meters to go, Rogers was in seventh place and her chances to bring home a medal looked bleak. But Rogers has always had a lethal finishing kick in her back pocket and she put it to good use, sneaking in for bronze in about 19 meters. She said she went in expecting the quick pace and was ready.
“I knew this was definitely going places, I just tried to remember who I was, and not to overthink or panic or anything,” Rogers said after the race.
Mu spent the pandemic rewriting the collegiate record books as a freshman at Texas A&M. When she finished off the season winning a NCAA title in the 400 meters in 49.57, she came back to Hayward Field two weeks later to win the Olympic Trials in the 800 meters. But could we see Mu make one more appearance in Tokyo on the 4 x 400-meter relay? She said she still doesn’t have an answer to that.
“I wish I could tell you the answer to that, but sadly I don’t know,” Mu said. “I’ll be here, hopefully on that relay. If not, then I’m going home and that’s great.”
Mu (pronounced Mo) signed a multi-year deal with Nike after the NCAA championships, then took control of the 800-meters Trials final with 200 meters to go, finishing in 1:56.07—not just a meet record, but then the fastest in the world this year.
In Tokyo, she faced a fierce international field in the most high-pressure competition of her young life. Eleven other athletes who competed in the 800 meters in these Olympics had run faster than 1:58 this year and four had clocked faster than 1:57, including Goule who finished Stockholm in 1:56.44.
Rogers was the 2019 world championships silver medalist in the 800 meters and Tokyo was her first Olympics. She said her training for the U.S. Olympic Trials was “an uphill,” experiencing some mental challenges that she has overcome with faith and prayer. In 2020 she left Ajee’ Wilson’s training group in Philadelphia to join the Nike-affiliated group coached by Pete Julian in Portland, Oregon. She won the bronze on her mother’s birthday, making it that much more special, she said.
Going into the Olympics, Rogers said she felt more at ease as Julian encouraged her to not complicate matters.
“Yesterday he was just like, ‘…Just go out there and have fun,'” Rogers said. “He was already proud of me for the progression I had made being with him. Taking that and really going into this final with his advice to be myself—it’s not hard to do.”