Athing Mu Embraces “Enjoying Where I’m At With This”

Her redemptive American Record DL Final win meant more than just digits on the clock to Mu. (KEVIN MORRIS)

THE MANY FANS of Athing Mu can be forgiven if they felt absolutely convinced that she would win the 800 gold in Budapest. Ever since the dawn of the pandemic, the long-legged New Jersey native had gone undefeated in her specialty, capturing golds at both the Olympics and the Worlds and running 4 of the 5 fastest times ever by an American, all before the age of 21.

In a word, the not-yet-22 Mu appeared to be invincible. Yet the ’23 season showed us that reality involves many more shades of gray. While Mu lost in Budapest, the pathway she followed between that day and her Diamond League triumph 3 weeks later showed her fans that while she isn’t invincible, she is indeed resilient. More importantly, it revealed to Mu that both peace and happiness can be hers in this sport.

The early chapters of her ’23 season kept almost everyone guessing, as Mu didn’t race until June. Her coach, the enigmatic Bobby Kersee, dropped occasional nuggets that only confounded the media. Would she be running the 800? The 400? The 1500? Would she race at all?

In Eugene at the USATF meet, Mu showed up in the 1500 entries, an event she contested sparingly over the years. With a best of 4:16.06, she hardly figured to be a major contender. Many even doubted she would be on the starting line. Yet there she was, destroying her best with a 4:10.33 for 3rd in her heat. But she was just dabbling, wasn’t she? Surely she wouldn’t appear for the final?… Not only did she appear but she also played a major role, leading onto the final stretch and holding on for 2nd in 4:03.44. It was a performance that confirmed her world-class prospects at the longer event.

What event would she run at Worlds? The 1500 where she had earned a team spot or the 800 where she had a bye as defending champion? She wouldn’t commit publicly, deferring to Kersee: “I don’t know… We’ll have a conversation… We’ll see how it goes…”

After the metric mile final, she elaborated on what the long term might hold for her: “We can always go back to the 400, we can always go up to the 1500. I think at this point we’re kind of just visiting around seeing what we like best and seeing where it can take us and where we see most of our potential.

“Next year, it could be 400/800, it could be just the 800, it could be 800/1500, who knows? I haven’t reached potential in any of these yet. I think we’ll just have to peel back and see what I can do. Whatever Bobby says I’ll do and I think it will be pretty fun to discover.”

That faith in her coach, said Mu, has always been part of how she has been wired. “I mean for me,” she explains, “I always trust my coach, whether it was youth, college, whatever. I trust my coach, trust his decisions, trust where he’s taking me. So when it comes to Bobby, I think we just take those things step-by-step. He obviously has a vision for later on and I like hearing about those things. But at the same time, I will get overwhelmed if I’m like, ‘Alright, this is what we’re doing…’ always talking about it. So I think he kind of relieves the pressure, at least for me. That’s cool.”

The cryptic Kersee comments to the media continued. He told the Los Angeles Times that she might not even compete in Budapest: “Our thought process, openly, is that we’re going to just train here in LA for the next two weeks and the next time she gets on the plane it’ll either be on vacation or to Budapest.”

Eventually, Mu decided to race at Worlds, and fans saw her lose over two laps for the first time in 3-plus years. Her 1:56.61 earned her the bronze medal behind Mary Moraa and Keely Hodgkinson. She spoke with the media afterward and admitted that the season had been difficult: “This year wasn’t my favorite, but we’ll see what happens in the future. Can finally enjoy the vacation, stop thinking about track & field.”

It wasn’t just the Budapest final. In her semi Mu frantically gyrated to stay on her feet after being tripped some 490m in, yet managed to race back up to 2nd for an auto-Q. (JEFF COHEN)

At season’s end she elaborated that she had been dealing with a variety of challenges and doubts during the off-season. “This whole year, honestly, was just so different. I’m with a new coach, new place, new environment. I had to go through a couple of situations throughout the year and it was just a lot of things were happening.”

Social media didn’t really help: “Of course, there’s so many different things that the track world is saying, and of course, I see it because social media’s fun… And unfortunately, I see all these media outlets just talking about my name.” A few weeks before Budapest, she finally deleted the social media apps from her phone.

All the noise affected her mindset toward competition, she admitted. She found herself asking, “Am I just really where I want to be? Do I really want to do this? Am I really in the best position to come out here and just run?’

The vacation Mu promised herself after Worlds got put off, and in the 3 weeks between Budapest and the DL Final, something crystallized in her thinking. Her mindset underwent a dramatic change. It showed in her racing when she burned a 1:54.97 American Record on the Hayward Field track to successfully turn the tables — on Moraa and Hodgkinson. Mostly, it showed in a newfound sense of peace she radiated.

“I’m just sitting and enjoying where I’m at with this. You know, it’s OK to have really fast athletes. It’s okay to have people pressuring you cuz that’s just what the for sport comes with. But it’s just really how you take it. And one of the main things that I really enjoy realizing over the past weeks is… there’s so many things to enjoy. The fans are amazing. Like I literally love them. I got so much support afterwards. It just made me realize, man, I’m not doing this for my own self. People actually genuinely care about me. They actually enjoy watching and if they know when I’m the best version of myself. I just wanted to make sure that I prioritize that myself because that’s the best way I can be.”

She added, “I definitely feel I was actually embracing the whole environment. I was embracing everything. I was appreciating all the fans and the support that I had all around and I wasn’t really thinking about myself too much. I was just thinking about going out there, repeating and doing the best I could to be the best version of myself, the best athlete that I could be.

“If I want to do anything in this sport, I’m going to have to be happy. I’m going to have to enjoy doing the sport. cuz if I get burnt out, which I’ve been numerous times — like before I even went professional — it’s like nothing’s going to happen. [In Budapest] I wasn’t myself, I didn’t feel good the whole entire time. I wasn’t enjoying being there and you see how it went. And so, when I’m just enjoying what I’m doing and thinking about where I want to be, where I want to take things, then everything goes well like today.”

Mu’s words from another press conference ring true: “We have so many more years ahead and I think it’s more just me being happy and me just understanding what I am and what I want to do and where I want to be.”