U.S. Olympic trials: Athing Mu's hopes of a golden repeat in the 800 shattered

Olympic champion Athing Mu‘s hopes for a repeat came crashing down on the backstretch of the first lap of the 800-meter final at U.S. track and field trials Monday.

Racing in the middle of the pack, Mu got tangled up with a bunched group of runners and went crashing to the ground and rolled onto her back, her bright pink shoes flailing toward the sky.

Mu got back to her feet and finished but was more than 22 seconds behind the winner, Nia Akins, who ran 1 minute, 57.36 seconds.

The 22-year-old from New Jersey was choking back tears as she headed quickly off the track and through the tunnel after the race. She did not immediately come through the media area for interviews.

The Olympic trials was her first meet of the year after dealing with injuries all season. She looked to be in good form in her first two rounds, but was out of the running in the final before the first 200 meters.

It was Exhibit A of the unforgiving format of the U.S. trials, where the top three finishers make the Olympic team and resumes and past performances mean nothing. Mu could still go to Paris as part of the U.S. relay pool; she was a key part of America’s gold-medal win in the 4×400 three years ago in Tokyo.

After winning NCAA, national, world and Olympic championships all before turning 21, Mu won a bronze medal at worlds last year and, afterward, conceded she needed a break from all the pressure, social media and other demands that came along with being tagged as one of track’s great new stars.

In interviews leading into this week’s meet, she said she had rediscovered her love for the sport and was looking forward to the quest to become a back-to-back champion.

She has dominated this distance thanks, in part, to a long, loping stride, and that might be what cost her in a race where she came in as the favorite.

Mu was racing on the outside in a tightly bunched pack and looked to be veering to her left toward Juliette Whitaker when she tripped and went tumbling, leaving three runners behind her flailing as they jumped over her.

She’s hardly the first athlete to have this happen. One of the more memorable and heartbreaking moments on this track came eight years ago in the same event, when Alysia Montano, looking to return to the Olympics, got tripped up in the homestretch and stayed down on the track crying.

Anna Hall’s comeback

Mu’s 800 was a stark contrast to that run by heptathlete Anna Hall less than half an hour earlier.

Hall won her 800 — the seventh and final event in the two-day heptathlon — to win the title and make the Olympics. It came three years after a stumble over the hurdles cost her a spot at the Tokyo Games, and a mere six months after knee surgery made her question if she could get back in time for Paris.

She, too, was crying after her race as she headed to the stands to hug the greatest American in that event, two-time Olympic champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

“I’m almost in shock,” Hall said. “This year has been so hard. And falling in 2021. The journey to get here has been so much harder than I imagined.”

Other drama

There was drama elsewhere on a busy night that included six finals.

The women’s 5,000-meter race came down to a .02-seconds difference with Elle St. Pierre finishing in 14:40.34 to barely beat Elise Cranny. Both are going to the Olympics.

Also, Vashti Cunningham, who had a combined 13 straight U.S. indoor and outdoor titles coming into the week, needed to win a jump-off for third to make her third Olympic team.

Waiting game

Quincy Wilson, 16, finished sixth in the 400-meter final with a time of 44.94, his third sub-45 race in three tries at the trials.

Now, he will wait to see if the U.S. track team calls on him to be part of the relay pool.

“All I know is I gave everything I had,” he said. “I can’t be too disappointed. I’m 16, and I’m running grown-man times.”

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