‘It’s part of our American way’ – Olympic champion Athing Mu falls in US trials final and fails to make Paris for 800m

Athing Mu got tangled up in the middle of the track and started falling. One hand hit the ground, then the other. As she rolled onto her back, her bright pink shoes started pointing toward the sky.

With that, one of America's most promising runners saw her hopes of back-to-back Olympic titles in the 800 metres go down the drain, while sports fans got a refresher on just how unforgiving these US track trials really are.

The 22-year-old from New Jersey became the first big-name casualty of the trials Monday, the victim of a bunched-up pack in the backstretch of the first lap, to say nothing of the long-standing rule in the US that only the top three finishers at trials make the Olympics, regardless of their resume.

“I’ve coached it, I’ve preached it, I’ve watched it," Mu’s coach, Bobby Kersee, said. "And here’s another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes home than other countries have. It’s part of our American way.”

Kersee said Mu got clipped from behind and that a protest had been lodged. USA Track and Field did not immediately respond to queries about the status of the protest. The coach said Mu got spiked, had track burns and hurt her ankle.

“She’s going to be licking her wounds for a couple of days,” Kersee said.

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. Mu was choking back tears as she headed quickly off the track and through the tunnel after the race. She did not do interviews.

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

Mu is hardly the first athlete to have this happen. One of the more memorable and heart-breaking 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.

“I have a little mama bear feeling,” said Montano, who is at the track this week doing in-house interviews over the PA system. “But the race is brutal sometimes. It's two laps, a tight race and everyone's feeling scrappy to try to figure out what position they want to get into.”

The Olympic trials marked Mu's first meet of the year after dealing with injuries all season. She looked to be in good form in her first two rounds, and Kersee said her season was coming together.

But in the 800 final, she barely made it half a lap.

Despite the fall, Mu could still go to Paris as part of the US relay pool; she was a key part of America's gold-medal win in the 4x400 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 in Eugene, 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 favourite.

“I heard it and I was just like ‘OK, keep running, it wasn’t you,’” second-place finisher Allie Wilson said of the commotion that resulted in Mu's tumble. “That, unfortunately, is part of racing. Things like that can happen.”

Mu’s 800 was a stark contrast to that run by heptathlete Anna Hall less than a half-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.”

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

The women’s 5,000m race came down to a .02-second 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 US indoor and outdoor titles coming into the week, needed to win a jump-off for third to make her third Olympic team.

Quincy Wilson, 16, finished sixth in the 400m 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 US 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.”

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

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