America’s Fastest Teenager

There’s something very special about middle distance runner Athing Mu. Smashing records and propelled into the spotlight, find out how the young world champion is literally taking life in her stride

By Alice Barraclough

Middle distance prodigy. America’s fastest teenager. Olympic gold medalist. These are just a few phrases used to describe the 800m runner Athing Mu – one of athletic’s rising stars. Perhaps you remember watching her during the 800m final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Athing went to the front, set the pace and stayed there – crossing the line in a record-breaking time of 1:55.21, and becoming the first American since 1968 to win gold in that event. She was just 19 years old.

Athing: "Honestly, I think that my next job can be a fashion stylist.”

For many athletes, becoming an Olympic gold medallist is just a far-flung dream. But this was no dream for Athing, she believed it would happen – manifested it – and made it look incredibly effortless. In fact, it’s this deep-rooted self-belief and inexorable confidence that really shone through when we caught up with her to talk about all things running, fashion, and life as a 20-year-old in LA.

“It wasn’t until 7th grade – when I was 12 or 13 years old – when I started to break records, that I realised I was actually quite good at running. I remember being at either States or Regionals, and running the 400m, 800m and 1,500m – I broke the record in every single one of those events,” she says, nonchalantly. Athing, who is from Trenton, New Jersey, describes her rise to fame as just “going through the motions” and “gradual” – of course, she doesn’t see her meteoric rise into the limelight as happening overnight, she’s put in years and years of work, and was pegged from a young age as a ‘budding star’. But to the rest of the world, who perhaps hadn’t heard of Athing until Tokyo, the leap from precocious high school senior to world-class runner, seems all the more dramatic.

“When I was 16, I ran at my first indoor US championships. That’s when I broke an American record, which was absolutely insane as the youngest competitor, and when the nation started to see me. When I was 18, that’s when the world saw me, because that’s when I was able to get to the Olympics,” she says.

Athing takes the baton from Dalilah Muhammad on the way to Team USA winning gold, 4 x 400m relay, 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Going For Gold

But it wasn’t until Athing watched the Rio 2016 Olympics on TV, that the Olympic Games were even on her radar. She was 14 years old at the time, and impressionable. “Even though I’d run track since I was six years old, I never really looked into the history of track. So it wasn’t until I watched the 2016 games that I realised I wanted to be a professional athlete and I wanted to win gold at the Olympics. I didn’t know when it would happen, but because I was manifesting it and always saying that I wanted to be an Olympian to my best friend in high school, I knew it was possible.”

Her confidence is truly unwavering. In 2021 she completed what can only really be described as a historic freshman year at Texas A&M, where she broke a host of collegiate records, announced she was going pro, signed a mega contract with Nike and – of course – became a gold medalist at the Tokyo Olympics. “It was only afterwards, when I looked back, that I realised I’d been declaring this goal and speaking about wanting to be an Olympian for four years, not even thinking it would come so soon. It’s just crazy to think that I believed in myself – without really knowing how it would happen or having a plan – actually ended up happening.”

Athing: “One of the things I like to remember is, whatever happens in the race, it’s not going to affect anyone else but you."


Walking the runway for Nike.

Powerful Support Network

It’s hard not to wonder where this steadfast self-belief, practicality and zero boastfulness came from. Perhaps from her parents, who immigrated from Sudan, or her siblings even? As the second youngest of seven sporty siblings, Athing says she “just fell through the line” following her siblings to the Trenton Track Club. They all competed in Athletics and stopped or dropped out at different levels. “I never really thought about me being the one to take that next step,” she says. “But I do remember sitting around after a meet, and they were all just like ‘ok, she’s going to be the one that takes us to the next level’.”

Whatever it is, for someone so young, Athing comes across as extremely grounded. “I just enjoy the process and I know I work hard, so I don’t let it get to my head. I’m just like ‘ok, that was great, I won gold and I’m World Champion, but what’s next?’ I can’t take that title into the new year with me, I have to do it all over again. So I don’t really hold onto any of those things, I just do it, move on and start over.”

Dealing With Pressure

While it’s a rather unique way of looking at her achievements, Athing says it stops her from over analysing her races and training. But it doesn’t make her immune to outside pressures and the anxiety that comes with the expectation to perform. “In 2021 I was fresh on the scene, people were just seeing who I was for the first time. I’d never been in the top ranking on a global level before, so it was all new and I was competing as if I was just any other athlete. Even though I had the number one time in the world, I wasn’t thinking ‘oh my God, I’m number one, everyone’s looking at me and I have to perform’. I was just there to have fun and to soak in the fact that I made it – I was at the Olympics,” she explains. “I just had a step-by-step, day-by-day, race-by-race type of mindset.”

800m gold, 2022 World Track and Field Championships. Photography by Guillaume Laurent.

Of course, like most other athletes, she felt nervous on the line – it was a big final after all – but at the same time, there was no expectation. “All I had to do was compete and just finish the race,” she says. But 2022 brought a different kind of pressure – because when you’re defending your title, the expectations are sky high. “I was a little injured this past year and that was taking a mental toll on me. Then, at the same time, at every single round I’d hear people say, ‘oh my gosh, it’s Athing, she’s doing so well’. It’s way different when you’re a key athlete in your event – you’re the one in the spotlight – versus when you’re just competing as any other athlete. As the meet progresses, and as the rounds keep on going, the spotlight is always on you – even just hearing the introduction that you get as they announce your name. It’s like, pressure’s on, she’s the reigning champion, let’s see what she can do and who’s going to come after her.”

But even though the pressure is clearly there, Athing seems to accept it with a sense of calm. “It’s more about how you handle the pressure you put on yourself,” she says. “One of the things I like to remember is, whatever happens in the race, it’s not going to affect anyone else but you. How you perform isn’t going to affect the commentator, it’s not going to affect the fans – it’s only going to affect you. When I think about it that way, it kind of takes away all that stress or the pressure you may put on yourself. It’s meant to be fun after all.”

Everything With A Smile

And fun is certainly the name of the game for Athing. In fact, if you look back at footage from Tokyo you’ll notice she never stopped smiling – not once. “I like to have a lot of fun. Even if we’re in the call room, I’m smiling or at least trying not to be too serious because for me personally, whenever I let the moment take over my mind and dive deep into what’s happening – ‘oh my gosh, we’re here at the World Championships’ – it overwhelms and psychs me out,” she says.

Athing with her boyfriend and track star Brandon Miller. Photography by Cortney White.

The City Of Angels

Athing recently moved from College Station, Texas, where she was studying and training at Texas A&M University, to be coached by Bobby Kersee in Los Angeles. “I took this semester off – I absolutely needed that – and so right now I’m just working out and training with Bobby,” she explains. Her boyfriend (although she doesn’t really like that word, she admits), Brandon Miller – who’s also an 800m American middle-distance runner – made the move to LA with Athing to train under Bobby, too. “We’re kind of in an adjustment period,” she says. “We’ve started a new training schedule and I’m getting to work with new trainers. It’s all completely new, but it’s been going really really well.”


Brandon and Athing practice at the same club, do the same workouts and have their own session with Bobby, so it can get competitive. “He goes after me,” she says. “Sometimes he likes to run up on me. I’m like, ‘bro, back up’.” But they’re also each others’ support network. “It’s definitely helpful to have someone else that’s doing the exact same thing as me. Just seeing someone else experience what you’re experiencing makes you feel less alone, they understand your pain. Most of the time we’re recapping the workout, thinking about what we did and where we are mentally. We just relate to each other and understand one another – and I think it’s really hard to find that sometimes. Especially if you’re into different events or competing on different levels, like collegiate versus professional.”

Athing on Brandon: “Sometimes he likes to run up on me. I’m like, ‘bro, back up’.” Photography by Philip Windham

Since Bobby is now their official coach, they’ll be in LA for at least the next couple of years, Athing says. “I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again; Bobby is so good – he is such a great coach. If I do need to change coach again, all I’d be doing is downgrading – and I can’t really do that. So I’m probably going to be here for a while as Bobby is the greatest coach of all time.” It’s quite the accolade. But Bobby Kersee is fairly legendary in the world of athletics, having coached some of the best talent in the sport, including Allyson Felix, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Sydney McLaughlin. “I just wanted to give myself the opportunity to do something different,” she adds.

“Where I went to college in Texas – College Station – it was just a very closed off town because it was just for the university, so there was nothing really close to it. You’d have to drive for an hour or two to go out with your friends or have a nice spa day. But here in LA – it’s very, very big. You have access to basically anything. I’m just a fan of how diverse it is – and no one really knows me here, so that’s great. I don’t have to walk around or go to the grocery store and have people say, ‘oh my God is that you?’ I’m just living a regular life.”

First American since 1968 to win 800m Olympic gold. Photography by Guillaume Laurent.

Just A Normal 20-Year-Old?

Of course, Athing’s idea of “regular” is perhaps a little different to most. She trains for max four hours a day – “but those four are very intense” – on Mondays, Tuesdays, off Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “It’s basically the same as I did in college, but the workouts and the intensity are a lot different,” she says. Strength training is scheduled three times a week – squats, deadlifts and lots of core. “Today we went on a three mile run, kind of a recovery run from our workout yesterday. We do do a lot of volume – especially at the moment, in off season – it’s all about building that base so you can get ready for dialling down and getting faster and still have the strength when it comes to competing.”

It’s a long season, so while she’s excited about training in LA, she admits she doesn’t actually get to experience much of the city just because she’s always exhausted from training. “But, I do love shopping,” she says. Her most recent obsession? Shoes. “Recently I’ve really been getting into high heels. I literally love them. I bought three pairs in the past six weeks – but they’re expensive, so I need to stop.”

Athing: "I’m just like ‘ok, that was great, I won gold and I’m World Champion, but what’s next?"

As a self-confessed shopaholic, Athing lights up when asked if she has a favourite designer – “I love Versace pumps. I love being tall, oh my God, don’t get me started. I love being tall because it just makes me feel so superior to everyone else. I love the pink pumps and I want the black pair of boots too. I’m probably going to get them.” Essentially, Athing just loves dressing up. “It’s just so much fun. I just love to see the end result – and I always pull through, even if there’s a situation where I don’t have the right shoes or my dress is not right or if the outfits’ just not good. Honestly, I think that my next job can be a stylist.”

Other than Versace shoes, she admits that she doesn’t really have a favourite designer. “I’m not saying every designer sticks to the same thing, but I like mixing it up. I like different kinds of styles. I like Bronx and Banco dresses – but I don’t have a favourite. I just choose what looks good.” She’s also got an eye for interiors and home decoration. “I’m definitely getting into home renovations,” she says, admitting that it’s kind of like shopping too. “I’m just enjoying looking into different furniture – I think I’m going to redo the house here pretty soon because it looks quite lame.”

Athing: “I love Versace pumps. I love being tall, oh my God, don’t get me started."

Style On Track

Some track and field athletes feel they don’t just need to dominate on the track, they need to look the part – and showcase their personality through their celebrations, hairstyles and fashion to help grow their own marketable brand. But not Athing. “I’m not an accessory kind of person,” she says. “They give you arm sleeves or you can wear jewellery – but that’s not me, and I don’t think that would express who I am.” So if she could go to Nike and design her own race-day outfit, what would that look like? “I would just want to wear something entirely different. I would want to put some sort of fashion into it, but it would still need to be wearable and sweat wicking. I’m not sure what it would look like – but it wouldn’t look like a track outfit. It would be more fun, more fashionable.”


Athing’s guilty pleasure is watching Real Housewives. “It’s so bad,” she admits. “The only reason I wanted to get into it is because Sanya Richards-Ross – the American athlete who won gold in the 400m at London 2012 – is in Real Housewives of Atlanta. Years and years ago, my aunt actually used to watch it, so I saw little snippets, but when I found out Sanya was in it, I wanted to watch it. But one of my pet peeves is having to wait for an episode a whole week. So I decided to start from season one and work my way up, and honestly, it’s taken me 9 months. I can’t believe I binge watched it – sometimes I’ll watch six episodes back-to-back, espeically if I’m cleaning up and it’s on in the background.” Perhaps Real Housewives could also be partly to blame for Athing’s love of shoes? “They dress up every single day. I need to do that, why not?”

Athing: "It wasn’t until I watched the 2016 games that I realised I wanted to be a professional athlete and I wanted to win gold at the Olympics."

Faith Helps Put Things Into Perspective

Other than fashion and watching Real Housewives of Atlanta, Athing often shares bible verses on her Instagram. “Growing up, my family used to always go to church on Sundays. But I really drove into my faith in the year of Covid,” she says. “Covid changed everything. Everyone was down, no one knew what was going to happen, or when the world was going to open up. And during that time, I was also questioning whether I really wanted to run track. It just didn’t seem like it was fun anymore since I was just competitng and training by myself all the time.” It’s fair to say that Covid tested Athing’s faith – “during that time, everything just felt sad and depressing and so one day I just started praying. I was like ‘I can’t do this, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore’. I was trying to guide my own life versus letting God take control of my life. When I started to pray, I surrendered and I took that with me into college – I think that’s why my year went so well because I ran carefree every single race.


“I ran as if Covid was going to happen again and the world was going to be shut down, whenever I was on the track. Competing like that, and being in that mindset where I’m just at peace, joyous and letting go, was just so helpful in terms of enjoying life and enjoying track and field, and believing I was at the right place at the right time.”

Looking Forward

She may be young, but Athing wears her talent with ease. “My main goal for 2023 is to take this year as I did two years ago in 2021. That year, when I ran, was such a peaceful, joyous, carefree year. So I want to tap back into that. When I’m in that mindset, I’m prepared for anything to happen.” It is this motivation that guides Athing, both on and off track. “I’m also excited to experience the fashion world of LA, I’m looking forward to putting my face out there a bit more, I think it will be fun.” After all, what’s racing without a little bit of fun?

l-r: Allyson Felix, Athing, Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone - 4 x 400m relay gold medal winners, 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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