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GOLDEN! N.J. teen Athing Mu wins 800 meters at Tokyo Olympics for first gold medal


Athing Mu, the 19-year-old Trenton native who emerged as one of the world’s best middle-distance runners this year, has made history at the Tokyo Olympics.

Mu became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the 800-meter race in more than a half century, taking an early lead against the stacked field and crossing the finish line with her best time of an already incredible season.

She took the lead on the first turn and never relinquished it, finishing the race in 1:55.21 — a U.S. record. That outpaced British teen Keely Hodgkinson (1:55.88) and American rival Raeven Rogers (1:56.81). The two Americans wrapped themselves in the Stars and Stripes when the race ended and waved to their teammates in the near-empty stadium.

“I’m looking forward to standing on the podium, the middle one, and receiving the gold medal that in the future will have my name engraved on it,” Mu said before leaving for Tokyo. “I just want to be an Olympic champion, to be completely honest!”

She has done that in her first try, the latest and greatest accomplishment in what has been a rapid ascension as an athlete. Had the Olympics been held as scheduled last summer, it is likely that Mu — who had just graduated from Trenton Central — wouldn’t have even qualified.

Instead, the pandemic allowed her to flourish in her first and only season at Texas A&M, turn pro this spring and start a dominant streak of big performances at the U.S. Olympic trials last month.

She arrived in Tokyo as the gold-medal favorite. Still, if these Olympics have taught us anything, expectations do not necessarily mean results. From the start, however, Mu showed no signs that the pressure was holding her down. To the contrary, she seemed to flourish in it.

Mu smirked when a stadium announcer mispronounced her name — it is uh-THING moe — before her preliminary heat, jogged across the finish line for a breezy win in the semifinals and was at ease dealing with the scrutiny from the international press. The attention was warranted.

Mu ended a long American drought in the event that has been dominated by Eastern Europeans (and, in the 1980s, under a cloud of doping suspicions). The only American to ever win Olympic gold in the women’s 800m is Madeline Manning in 1968, and no U.S. runner had even won a medal since Kim Gallagher took bronze in 1988.

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Steve Politi may be reached at spoliti@njadvancemedia.com.

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