Years before Athing Mu won gold in the women's 800-meter race at the Tokyo Olympics, she had a conversation with the only other American to win the event, Madeline Manning Mims.
Mims spoke to Mu five years ago over the phone. Mu said then, “‘I want to be just like you. I want to win a gold medal,’” Mims recalled in an interview with TODAY over Zoom.
Mims won the event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, becoming the first African American to compete in the event and the first American woman to win it. Mu broke the 53-year-old drought for Americans in the event with her Tuesday win.
Mims remembers her phone conversation with the then-14-year-old Mu, who dreamed of following in Mims' footsteps and winning gold too.
“But do you know how many times I hear that from kids?” Mims, 73, said. “We talked a little bit about what it takes and that type of thing, but I went on and I didn't think anything about it.”
Mu, now 19, won with a time of 1 minute, 55.21 seconds, setting a new American record. In 1968, Mims set a then-Olympic record of 2 minutes, 0.9 seconds. Mims said the way Mu ran was jarringly similar to how she used to run.
“I cried. I mean, I just cried because in the middle of the race, I recognize she's running exactly like I did,” Mims said. “It was like watching myself all over again, reliving something that happened 53 years ago.”
Mims said she has not spoken to Mu since Mu won, but plans to and hopes to meet her in person one day.
Mims has never really left the Olympics. She’s served as an Olympic chaplain since the 1988 Games and eventually turned her work into an organization, United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy. She offered virtual services and sent athletes goodie bags during the Tokyo Games since attendance caps barred her from joining in person, she said. And she's planning to do another round of goodie bags for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
Mims said she started this journey to serve, and that's the most fulfilling part.
"The Lord said it the best way. He said, 'If you want to be the first, then you've got to be a servant to all.' And that's why I went back into my sport, to serve my peers, and those upcoming. I've had nine Olympiads after I finished my career where I've served as an Olympic chaplain. And it wasn't easy because what was so neat is the reality that I had to learn how to set aside all my accolades and become a servant. And that's very humbling, and in fact I had a little problem with that at times to be very honest. But I am glad that I am who I am now because it's like the Lord's rewarding me for my faithfulness to give. And in doing that, I'm seeing people's hearts and minds and attitudes change. And that's what it's all about."
Mims had been doing faith work long before she built out an organization to expand her services. Mims said she was voted team captain for three of the Olympics she qualified for, adding that she counseled and served fellow athletes when she wasn't running. Mims said there are two choices when becoming captain.
“You can either make it honorary, and say thank you very much, or you can activate it. And when you activate it, you put yourself in a position to serve. And so a lot of times on the team, I was serving and did not realize that that's what a chaplain does. So it's like God was training me while I was on the team — how to be a chaplain, how to serve, a lot of counseling, a lot of encouraging, a lot of just loving and being there.”
Mims’ approaches include being on call 24/7, singing, reading the Bible together and serving in any way she can, she said.
The recent mental health push from athletes underscores the importance of Mims' work. She said the athletes she works with ground themselves spiritually and mentally before competing by asking her for a Scripture interpretation, prayers or guidance for things happening back home, or just a listening ear.
The other common occurrence currently happening in sports is athletes protesting and using their platforms for social justice causes. Mims competed with John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, where the two sprinters famously protested inequity by raising their fists on the medal podium. They subsequently faced backlash.
While Mims is glad that athletes are civically and politically engaged and protesting, she's also concerned that activism has become performative and reduced to jumping on the bandwagon of "whatever's trending" in an attempt to go viral and advance oneself. Mims also said the reason Carlos and Smith were so effective in their protest is because it was rooted in personal experience, not trying to ride trends.
“On the track at Tennessee State University, where we were training, sometimes when we would get off the track, it was time to go eat in the cafeteria. We had people come in, on the campus, who would start shooting, just shooting in the air. And so we were actually running from tree to tree, trying to get to the cafeteria, or get to our dorms for safety. It was nothing to play with. Sometimes when I look at some of the protests, it's like they're kind of following whatever's trending. Instead of really having experience for themselves.
“I'm glad that we have some young people who are stepping up and saying, ‘No, no, no more of this, we've got to change this.’ But the main thing is to understand you've got to be able to live a life where your heart is changed. Your mind will never change unless your heart is changed. And so live what you say. Don't only just try to make a statement through your stance, but live what you say, and say what you live.”
Mims said the Lord gives her guidance and wisdom to do just that in her life and in her work. She said her future plans involve building up her organization for the next generation because "I don't want to leave my vision when I leave, you know. I don't want my vision to just go to pot because I'm not here anymore."
"I think the wealthiest person is the one who serves," Mims said. "I would love to be able to have money, but I want that money to go into developing my 501(c)(3) organization, the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy, that trains Olympians and Paralympians how to be chaplains and go back into their sport and serve."