By Kyle Merber
September 20, 2023
Listening to Athing Mu discuss her issues with the media and what people on the Internet are saying about her career was interesting from the perspective of someone who does that sometimes. “Is it me? Am I the drama?”
It’s a good reminder that people, including the athletes themselves, may read the word vomit that we may occasionally spew. It’s also a good reminder that for a 19-year-old Olympic champion, the volume on the pressure dial is always turned all the way up.
But on the flipside, all of that noise isn’t just other’s expectations – it’s support too. From atop the podium it’s not always easy to differentiate between the two.
It’s only been a few weeks since we last saw Athing Mu, but the experience of watching her this past weekend couldn’t have been more different. It’s not about winning – well, it is sorta. It’s more about the joy that the Olympic champion brought with her as she broke the tape in a new American record of 1:54.97. That elation is what had been missing this year.
Still only 21 years old, Mu has already been competing for 15 of them. She grew up in the sport and continues to do so, except now with far more lights and cameras. Leading into the World Championships there were doubts as to whether or not the defending champion would even be in Budapest to race. Fortunately, she did show up and made it an honest one from the start, holding on to earn a bronze medal.
Yet in the conversations with the media afterward, it was evident that no part of the experience went as she hoped. It’s a feeling that almost every athlete grapples with at one point or another: when the nervous jitters associated with racing become dread and the whole thing feels like a chore. And part of the transition of going from being a star collegiate athlete to a professional one is that there are no redshirt seasons to iron out the kinks.
Just because an athlete is being paid to compete does not mean they are not allowed to feel a certain way. Despite ambivalence around media obligations and the championships as a whole, Mu still showed up gamely for both.
It is a uniquely relatable human sensation and listening to her articulate those emotions in real time felt almost like stumbling upon then rudely reading an entry from her diary. But the willingness to share that vulnerability is what creates a connection with her fan base.
While I don’t wish those difficult moments on anyone, I can see the inner turmoil of Budapest eventually being reflected on as a pivotal moment in Mu’s career. This isn’t worth doing if you are not having fun, and it’s a lot easier to run fast when you are.
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After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.