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Athing Mu puts finishing touches on U.S. supremacy at world championships

Pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a native of Louisiana competing for Sweden, tops his own world record

Athing Mu needed to give everything she had to win the 800 meters Sunday. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

EUGENE, Ore. — Athing Mu often transforms the final 100 meters from competition to exhibition, from race to coronation. At the U.S. Olympic trials and in Tokyo last summer, a highway could have been laid in the distance between her and the best women’s 800-meter runners in the world. She needed only her languid stride.

Sunday night at Hayward Field demanded something else. A runner defined by her elegance required grit.

Before the final night of the world track and field championships, Mu had proved she has the most artful running form in the sport at only 20 years old. Now everybody knows she has guts, too. Mu held off a late charge from Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson to become the first American woman to win the 800 at the world championships, finishing in 1 minute 56.30 seconds — the fastest time in the world this year — with Hodgkinson breathing down her neck in 1:56.38.

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“At the end of the race, golly, I was just happy it was over,” Mu said. “Today was kind of a rough day for me. I was just happy I could make it to the line and finish the race. Thank God I won gold.”

As Mu helped the United States finalize its record performance in the medal table, world records fell in predictable and stunning fashion. The event ended with the pole vault record Mondo Duplantis, the greatest the sport has seen at only 22, has been chasing. Duplantis, a native of Louisiana who competes for his mother’s home country of Sweden, cleared 6.21 meters (20 feet 4½ inches), breaking his own world record with a jump he just missed while winning gold in Tokyo.

“Not so bad, eh?” Duplantis said in an on-track interview.

Mu provided a different kind of signature performance on the final night of the meet. She did not dominate as she usually does. After her victory in Tokyo, Mu looked as if she had run a different race than her rivals. As they writhed after perhaps the most grueling race in the sport, she ambled as if walking down the cereal aisle. Sometimes Mu watches the replay and is awed by it.

Clayton Murphy, the men’s 800 winner at last summer’s Olympic trials, jokes with Mu every time he sees her: “You going to put a little effort in today?”

Sunday was different. Mu arrived at the track and “just physically wasn’t where I would like to be,” she said. “I just didn’t feel my best.”

Mu still took control by the end of the first lap, surging to the front and increasing her pace to avoid the tangle of the pack. By the final 150 meters, Mu had created a gap between herself and Hodgkinson. Around the final turn, Hodgkinson, a 20-year-old who won silver in Tokyo, started to shrink it. Mu felt Hodgkinson charge on her inside and unintentionally drifted one lane to the outside. Hodgkinson had an opening, but Mu would not let her exploit it. She pumped her arms and leaned at the line, winning by 0.08 seconds.

“I knew it would come down to the wire,” Hodgkinson said. “I just need to find that 1 percent extra, don’t I?”

It will take a lot to beat Mu. She has few equals when she steps on the track, and even her fellow athletes watch her with a degree of awe.

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“I see poetry in motion — just the smoothest runner I’ve probably ever seen,” 400-meter hurdles world record holder Sydney McLaughlin said in June. “And it’s absolutely beautiful. She’s so young. She has so much ahead of her. I see a great future and, obviously, the future of USA track and field.”

Not old enough to legally drink, Mu is atop the sport. She won two gold medals in Tokyo, setting the U.S. record in the 800 meters at 1:55.21 — which she lowered weeks later to 1:55.04 — and running the anchor leg of a starry 4x400 relay team alongside McLaughlin, Allyson Felix and Dalilah Muhammad.

“It’s crazy because Tokyo wasn’t even a year ago,” Mu said. “This whole year-and-a-half for me has gone so fast, and I’ve gone through so many adjustments. … It was a complete change of everything. It means a lot to me because I know what I’ve been going through the entire year.”

At 19, she placed herself alongside McLaughlin as the future of U.S. track and field. In her elegance on the track and effervescence off it, Mu stands alone. That combination will make her one of the leading figures not only when the Olympics arrive in Paris in 2024 but probably when Los Angeles hosts them in 2028. She appeared in a recent Nike commercial starring Spike Lee, her portrait hanging above a stack of medals and trophies during a montage packed with the greatest athletes Nike has sponsored.

“She’s an incredibly charming and wonderful individual,” USA Track & Field CEO Max Siegel said. “We have one of the most diverse teams in the world. They all work hard. But Athing is an incredibly special athlete. We really plan on using her as one of the faces of our team.”

“It’s incredible to see what she’s doing — pretty much running the world at this point,” Murphy said. “With her, the sky is the limit. I don’t see any reason why she can’t challenge the world record, go past it and become one of the all-time greats ever.”

Mu skipped May’s Prefontaine Classic with the coronavirus and paused her training for about 10 days. The break made her less dominant this year, which only was another reminder of her superiority — at less than full strength, she still owned the fastest time in the world this year at 1:57.01 heading into the event. Mu received a rare challenge from Ajee’ Wilson, whose American record she seized in Tokyo, at the U.S. championships but outraced her over the final 20 meters.

Barely a year removed from turning professional after one season at Texas A&M, Mu may take on new challenges. In Tokyo, Mu hinted she could try to win gold in the 800 and 400 in 2024. The possibility grew more tantalizing after McLaughlin said here she may add the 400 to her program. Mu reiterated that desire Sunday, potentially setting up a showdown between the women likely to carry U.S. track and field over the next decade.

“It’s still in my thoughts,” Mu said. “I think it would be really fun.”

In the early evening, a world record dropped without warning. Nigerian Tobi Amusan, 25, had never run the 100-meter hurdles faster than 12.40 seconds, a time she posted in Saturday’s preliminary round. With the crowd still filtering in Sunday, Amusan in a semifinal heat cleared 10 hurdles in 12.12 seconds, faster than any woman ever. When she looked at the clock, her mouth stretched open and her eyes bulged.

American Keni Harrison, who had held the world record of 12.20 since 2016, finished second in the same heat in 12.27, the 11th-fastest performance of all time. Four of the eight finalists — and one hurdler who didn’t qualify for the final — broke a national record in the semifinals. Twelve of the 23 semifinalists set or tied their personal bests.

The stunning collection of fast times in a semifinal led to suspicion: Was the clock working right? American legend Michael Johnson, who once held the world record in the 200 and 400 meters, wrote on Twitter that he believed the times had been clocked incorrectly. A World Athletics spokeswoman said race officials had no questions about the authenticity of the results. “The timing was working as normal,” she said.

In the final, Amusan clocked 12.06 seconds for gold, not getting credit for a second world record because it was not wind legal. It was one of few medals the United States did not claim. The United States took three more golds, with both 4x400 relays winning, and pole vaulter Chris Nilsen added a silver. The United States finished with a record 33 medals and 13 golds. No other country had more than 10 medals of any color.

The meet ended in appropriate fashion. Two days after she shattered her own world record in the 400 hurdles, McLaughlin was the U.S. anchor for the 4x400. She ran her lap in 47.91 seconds, the fastest of anyone in the race by 1.48 seconds and perhaps a preview if she switches to the 400. McLaughlin carried the baton across the line as the U.S. anchor — all alone, no one close to her and nothing but open track ahead.