‘Always go for gold’: Trenton celebrates hometown Olympic hero

Athing Mu is cheered to victory in the 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics by her high school coaches (from left) Nigiel Boone and Al Jennings,

Athing Mu is cheered to victory in the 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics by her high school coaches (from left) Nigiel Boone and Al Jennings, who watched the race at the Trenton YMCA. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At least two dozen people gathered at the Capital Area Y on Pennington Avenue Tuesday in Trenton to watch the city’s hometown hero. Athing Mu was going for gold in the women’s 800-meter final in the Tokyo Olympics.

The watch party included an invocation given by Rev. John Taylor, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church, and breakfast. The race was scheduled for 8:25 a.m. Trenton time.

“I wanted to do it, but then I heard that other people want to do it,” said Mercer County Commissioner Chairman Sam Frisby Sr., whose day job is CEO of the Capital Area Y. “Then the coaches called me and said ‘Sam, can you do it at the Y.’”

The hometown crowd at the Trenton YMCA cheer
The hometown crowd at the Trenton YMCA cheer as participants in the women’s 800-meter take their places at the Tokyo Olympics. Among them was 19-year-old Trenton native Athing Mu, who won the gold. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The excitement for Mu’s race was palpable in the room, especially from her high school track coach Al Jennings.

“I’m extremely overjoyed,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of champions and I’ve had a lot of championships, but this one was very, very special.”

The room was a mix of people from Mu’s upbringing, including her former health and physical education teacher Thomas Harrington, who recalled that Mu didn’t talk very much but “whenever I did anything running, she got out there.”

“We had little mile competitions with my classes,” he said. “As a kindergartener, she was beating my fourth, fifth, and sixth graders already.”

The room cheered each time she was shown on the screen before the race, once when she was just walking through the call room at the stadium, then again when she made her entrance onto the track.

Athing Mu is cheered to victory in the 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics by her high school coaches (from left) Nigeil Boone and Al Jennings, who watched the race at the Trenton YMCA. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When the race began, the crowd cheered as Mu started to move ahead. After the bell rang for the final lap, the room erupted as Mu had built a solid lead. The cheering continued for the entire lap.

Mu, 19, was never seriously challenged down the home straight as she strode away to win the gold medal in 1 minute, 55.21 seconds.

Jennings, who sat in the front row to watch the race, could not contain his excitement after that first lap. He said no one was going to catch her.

“If she has the lead at that point, there’s no way you’re going to beat her because she’s the fastest 400 [meter] girl in the world,” he said.

Trenton Track Club coaches (from left) Nigeil Boone and Al Jennings embrac
Trenton Track Club coaches (from left) Nigeil Boone and Al Jennings embrace after watching their protégé, 19-year-old Athing Mu, take gold in the women’s 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In addition to one at The Y, a watch party was organized at Trenton Central High School, Mu’s alma mater. Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora watched the race there.

“It was just a thrill to watch it with the students who were the most enthusiastic about someone who was an alumni from there,” he said. “It just reinforces the message to always go for gold, do your best.”

The Y also had some young people in the room from their summer camp.

“I wanted them to see greatness in motion and I wanted them to see it when it actually happened, not on a replay,” Frisby said, “and see the excitement of these adults that were in here and a part of her life, just like we’re a part of their lives.”

Trenton Track Club coach Al Jennings cries tears of joy
Trenton Track Club coach Al Jennings, who coached Olympic gold medalist Athing Mu through high school, cries tears of joy after cheering Mu to victory in the women’s 800 meters in Tokyo. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mu has become a point of pride for the Garden State’s capital city. Before the 2020 Olympics, a banner honoring Mu was strung from City Hall. Frisby called the banner “a declaration of hope” during the celebration.

Not long after the race, a digital banner at the Cure Insurance Arena off of Route 129 congratulated Mu on her victory.

A digital banner on the Cure Insurance Arena sign congratulates Athing Mu
A digital banner on the Cure Insurance Arena sign off Route 129 in Trenton congratulating Athing Mu on her Olympic victory. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes celebrated Mu’s victory in a statement.

“The amount of work and effort to reach this moment is awe-inspiring, and we are so proud of her achievement,” he said.

Frisby said there will be a celebration when she returns from Japan.

“There’s no question we’re going to do something,” he said. “We’re going to partner with the city.”

A crowd gathers on the steps of Trenton City Hall
A crowd gathers on the steps of Trenton City Hall to celebrate homegrown Olympic athlete Athing Mu. The 19-year-old is a contender for the gold in her event, the 800-meter, at the Tokyo games. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mu’s victory is also inspiring the next generation. Shamali Whittle, a rising senior at Nottingham High School, said she has been inspiring him since he began to run at 8 years old.

“Every time I’ve seen her run, she is always doing the best version of herself,” he said.

Shamali, who watched Mu’s race on his 17th birthday, hopes to follow in her footsteps and run in the Olympics. But for now, he’s focusing on local races.

“I want to break the New Jersey records in every race that I run,” he said. “Then, I want to go get my national title at the Nike Nationals games, that’s going to be my goal for next year.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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