Al Jennings has been coaching prep standout Athing Mu (Central, Trenton, New Jersey) since she was 8 years old and even he is surprised by the phenomenal marks she’s put up this winter. “I didn’t expect her to come around this quickly,” says Jennings, who runs the Trenton Track Club. “I was thinking next year she would do this. And she’s just blossomed. And we haven’t really done a whole lot of hard stuff in training yet.”
Since the new year, the precocious junior has moved to No. 5 all-time in the 400 (52.55), No. 2 in the 600 (1:27.36), No. 4 in the 800 (2:03.98) and No. 3 in the 1000 (2:44.43)—leading the nation in each of those events—as well as clocking a swift 24.11 in the 200.
The PR in the 800—her favorite event—came in her debut against professionals at the Camel City Invitational in Winston-Salem on February 2. She finished 5th overall and in the process broke Ajee’ Wilson’s state record. “I felt really good because I was able to hang on to all those really great runners,” says the 16-year-old Mu. “I also learned how to stay on a person’s shoulder and just keep on until I have nothing left. I was actually not nervous at all.”
Mu doesn’t run for her high school team, a decision she made as a frosh so she could continue to train with her club coaches, Jennings and Bernice Mitchell. Under their guidance she racked up numerous AAU age-group titles. “Since I’d been running so well and I had been improving throughout the years I just decided that would be the best decision to stay with the club,” says Mu, the second youngest of seven siblings.
Jennings made sure she knew what she would be giving up, including few, if any, training partners during the school year. “I explained to her the difficulties of running by yourself in a culture that glorifies high school sports,” he remembers. “I told her you’re going to be going to meets by yourself, you won’t have teammates, you won’t have relays.”
It has obviously worked out so far. Though she isn’t eligible for State competition, she’s tested herself against the best preps in the country, sweeping the New Balance indoor and outdoor titles as a soph. She was also the runner-up outdoors as a frosh.
With fewer opportunities for competition in the spring, her outdoor season typically emphasizes summer meets. Last year she nearly pulled off an astonishing quadruple at the AAU Junior Olympics. She won 15/16 age-group titles in the 400 (52.83, not far off the PR 52.45 she set a few weeks earlier), 800 (2:07.54) and 1500 (4:38.78) before taking 2nd the 200. She clocked 24.07 in that final at the end of a long week, after setting a PR of 23.63 in the heats (good enough to land in the yearly top 20 prep list).
Jennings says entering Mu in a wide range of events—she also runs cross country in the fall and has a 1500 PR of 4:33.04—is all part of a plan to help her 800. “She was mainly running the 800 and the 1500,” he says of her middle school days. “I told her to get better we need to investigate some other events to see what we need to work on to get you ready for bigger meets.” She reluctantly started including the 400 in her schedule, and the improved speed has already paid off.
Mu was chosen for her first Team USA squad in the fall, taking silver at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. “I really enjoyed that race to be able to run with people who are at my same level,” she says. “That helps me learn how to better strategize races.”
This winter’s string of sensational marks has continued to whet Mu’s appetite for a higher level of competition. She will line up against the pros again at the USATF Indoor Championships, where she hopes to break Sammy Watson’s 600 HSR of 1:27.13, a mark she just missed at Millrose. Then it’s back to the prep ranks, where she is shooting for her third successive New Balance Indoor 800 title and perhaps taking a crack at Watson’s national record of 2:01.78. “Coming into 2019 I wanted this to be the year where I would do all of the great things,” she says. “This would be my peaking year. I’m glad it’s happening now so in the outdoor season I have no choice to PR.” □