Athing Mu’s days are a lot less complicated than they were supposed to be.
There is sleep, online classes, some last exams in her final days at Trenton Central High School in New Jersey, and, for now, easy running in the afternoons. No more than seven miles, none run faster than a six-minute-mile pace. And now that tracks in the state are opening, a little speed work.
At some point, somewhere, there will be a meet, and Mu, 17, will race her signature distance, the half-mile, and perhaps everyone will see once more why she is considered the fastest female teenager in America.
“This whole time period of uncertainty, it’s time to mentally get yourself together and physically get yourself ready instead of rushing everything,” Mu said during a recent phone interview. She had just completed her Advanced Placement calculus exam.
Some of the budding stars, like Mu, were on the cusp of qualifying for their first Olympics when the Tokyo Games were postponed until July 2021. Others were just beginning to dream of winning a medal, perhaps even gold. Waiting can be difficult, but the additional year of preparation arrived at a moment when their bodies and their minds were best poised to benefitfrom 12 extra months of seasoning.
“When you get these really talented outliers, the X factor is what is going on above the neck,” said Mark Verstegen, founder of EXOS, a high-performance training company that has worked with many of the world’s top athletes. “The extra year gives them a bit of a superpower, a confidence and courage that comes with more physical preparation.”
The bottom line is, he said, for Mu and her peers, “This extra year, it’s really worth more than a year.”
The dynamic is especially prevalent among young American swimmers and runners, who participate in the two sports that accounted for more than half of the medals the U.S. won in Rio in 2016. Both teams featured aging stars, like Michael Phelps and Allyson Felix, and needed a new generation of standouts to come along to help sustain that level of excellence. Several had just started to arrive.
Sydney McLaughlin, 20, just missed winning the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships last year. Sha’Carri Richardson, 20, is in her first year as a professional sprinter after breaking the N.C.A.A. women’s record in the 100. In swimming, Regan Smith, 18, is on her way to becoming the world’s dominant backstroker, and Luca Urlando, also 18, was the third-fastest in the world last year in the 200 butterfly, the race that first made Phelps a legend.
“I do think I am definitely going to be faster in a year,” said the sprinter Noah Lyles, 22, who won world championships in the 200 and the 4 x 100 relay last fall.
Of course, the dynamic isn’t true for every sport. A one-year delay for a growing female gymnast could be disastrous, since the sport generally favors small body types. Also, an athlete’s progression isn’t completely predictable. There are often leaps and setbacks, bad-luck injuries and unforeseeable challenges.
But among those athletes on the verge of stardom, Mu has the potential to make the most dramatic jump from precocious high school senior to world-class runner, even if shutdowns caused by the coronavirus have left her running on the streets around Trenton for most of the past few months. Last year, at 16, she broke the American indoor record for the 600, then finished fifth in the 800 at the outdoor national championships during the summer. She plans to enter Texas A&M this summer and major in kinesiology.
“This is not the way we planned it, but this worked out perfectly for her,” said Al Jennings, the head coach at the Trenton Track Club, who has coached Mu since she was 9 years old. “Now if we can just get her some meets.”
Mu, whose parents immigrated from Sudan 20 years ago, has never had to look far for competition. She is the second youngest of seven children and the first in her family to be born in the U.S. Her parents divorced in 2003. Her mother works in a warehouse, and her father is a seafood processor in the Pacific Northwest.
Several of the Mu children ran competitively, and Athing tagged along to their practices. Another coach with the Trenton Track Club, Bernice Mitchell, quickly alerted Jennings that Mu might be a special talent, and Mu began winning age-group national championships when she was in elementary school. That’s when Jennings made not burning her out the club’s primary focus.
During those early years, Mu trained just two days each week and competed mostly in local competitions. The important thing was to win in high school and college, Jennings told her, not in middle school. A natural runner, Mu needed only small adjustments — tiny corrections to her arm movements during the sprint to the finish and reminders not to overstride, especially as she grew to 5-foot-11.
At Jennings’s urging, Mu opted not to run for her high school team. The idea was to concentrate only on her best races, rather than how she might help a team win championships, which can often compel the most talented runners to compete in multiple races per meet. So while other Trenton Central students were heading to the school track, Mu was meeting Jennings at nearby colleges.
Everything seemed to be working out, except for the quadrennial Olympic schedule. Mu has little experience racing against women a decade or more older than she is. Going from junior competitions to the Olympics was going to be a tall order this year.
“Confidence is one thing I have to get a little better at,” Mu said. “Intimidation is a factor.”
Deng Mu, one of Athing’s older brothers, said he is confident his sister’s mind-set will catch up with her legs. He remembers watching her take the baton for the anchor leg in a 4-x-400 relay in middle school. Athing was roughly 100 meters behind the leader when she started but well ahead by the finish line.
“When you are from an immigrant family that comes in with its back against the wall, you know what the bottom is,” Deng Mu said. “It gives us a focus on pursuing things that would help us improve our lives.”
Verstegen said the improvement that someone like Mu could show in the coming year before the delayed Olympics is hard to underestimate, given her age and ability.
“You’ve identified the talent and now you get this world-class coaching and support,” he said. “That is a massive percent improvement when the body is doing its own work.”
The early success and expectations carry pressure. Mu raced poorly at the indoor national championships in February, failing to make the final in the 800. Jennings said she brooded for a few days before thinking about the next race.
“The way I think is whatever happens, happens,” Mu said, “especially when I am running with people who might be better than I am at one event or another.”
With the Olympics postponed and racing on hold, Mu, for the first time in her life, was running just for the sake of running, rather than to prepare for a specific race.
That was OK. She had another A.P. test to take in language and composition, more school work and a chance to enjoy her last weeks of high school.