LYNCHBURG, VIRGINIA--The stage was set for a dramatic race even before it lined up on the track.
Three of the nation's premier 400 meter girls sprinters--and that wasn't even including a late scratch from another athlete, Arria Minor, who couldn't make the trip from Colorado--were entered to compete at The VA Showcase at Liberty University.
You couldn't write a better headline.
And when the race began, you couldn't have imagined a better outcome, either.
In the end, it was two Olympic-sized talents who finished 1-2, with the junior Athing Mu edging freshman Kayla Davis in a race that seemed like the start of a thrilling matchup for the next few years. Mu went 52.55, earning the sixth fastest 400m indoors of all-time, while Davis went 53.30--which was eighth-hundredths of a second away from becoming a freshman class record--and Georgia's Kimberly Harris following in 53.58. All three efforts earned marks inside the top 30 runs at the distance all-time.
"I feel pretty confident because right now at this point of the season I'm ahead of where I was last year," Mu said afterward. "I feel pretty strong and confident."
Davis countered a day later:
"That was my first time ever having to be boxed in and figuring out what was my best move," Davis said. "Overall, I think did good to recover from stumbling."
New Jersey's do-everything, run-any-distance, and impossibly-gifted Mu was maybe the least likely to take the title, considering her stronger event historically had been the 800. But when the race got a little elbow-y at the break, it was Mu who was used her experience on the international level to surge past Davis.
Yet it was ultimately Harris who had the better angle of either of them and found herself in first after 200 meters. The Buford (GA) High School senior, who had the third fastest 400m time to finish the spring, had grand visions of winning on her own.
But by the 250m mark, Mu and Davis both made pivotal surges.
Those tactical moves ultimately proved to be winning gestures. While Davis swung outside, leaning on her long stride and high-turnover, Mu went inside on Harris and cut the distance between Davis. Neither athlete gave ground on the curve, and it was Mu's impressive speed in the final straightaway that took control in the end.
"Running in Argentina in that 800, where there was interactions like there was in this race," Mu said of her experience in finishing second in the 800m at the Youth Olympics this past fall in Buenos Aires. "It allowed me to make sure that I stay calm and just finish the race like I usually can."
In a much-hyped race where many saw Davis as the favorite, it was Mu who reminded the attending-audience that she still needs to be beaten.
All three athletes returned to the track on Saturday in different events, though Mu continued to amaze with another all-time performance, pocketing the second fastest effort all-time, and a junior class record, of 1:28.54 in the 600m.
Davis and Harris returned in the 200m, with Davis winning in 23.62 seconds--also just over fourth tenths of a second shy of a class record.
Afterward, the freshman shrugged off the loss on Friday and came back ready to charge ahead in her next race. Right now, racing for Davis is simple.
"I tell myself to go out there and do what you do and compete," she said.
Mu, meanwhile, rated her performance at The VA Showcase better than what even she envisioned it being.
"10 out of 10," she said. "Like I said, I'm way ahead of where I should be. I'm satisfied with how I started the season."