Prepare to brag, women’s 800 meter fans. Talk some smack with your Kenyan and Russian friends, because this is the year the U.S. women’s dynasty begins for real. You won’t get hung out to dry like those other times, I swear—we got people who are going to back you up, namely Ajee Wilson who will be kicking ass and taking names tomorrow at the Adidas Grand Prix track meet in New York City.
There was a long dark period between Kim Gallagher’s 1988 Olympic bronze medal and Brenda Martinez’s 2013 World Championship bronze. I like to call that period The Noneties. Hard to say what Americans were doing then, but running fast for 800 meters was not one of them.
A record three U.S. women made it to the final of the World Championship 800 meters in 2013, among them, 19-year-old Ajee Wilson. In a field of the very best in the world, she placed a close sixth in 1:58.21, securing her spot as the next big thing. No longer Next but Now, Wilson has fulfilled that promise, posting a personal best and the fastest time in the world in 2014 (1:57.67). She’s already made a run at that time this year (1:57.87) when she pushed World Champion Eunice Sum all the way to the wire in the May 30th Prefontaine Classic.
Being reticent by nature and training quietly with her high school coach, Wilson is a bit of an enigma. Fortuitously, when I called, coach Derek Thompson said that since Temple University’s spring semester was over, Wilson, who just finished her junior year as a sports science major, “had nothing going on.”
As a kid, Wilson was an enthusiastic athlete, involved in soccer and basketball. “In soccer, we’d have to do a 1000-meter warm-up around the fields. That was always my favorite part. I loved running,” the now 21-year-old Wilson told me by phone.
Her younger sister convinced her to come to practice at the Jersey Shore Track Club, where Wilson’s love of running soon marked her as a distance candidate. “The coach said something like, ‘let’s see who can run the most laps,’ and I ran a lot. I don’t remember how many, but it was a lot,” Wilson said. “At the next meet, I ran the 3000. I also used to run the mile, which I really enjoyed. It was less competitive than the 400 and 800 because no one wanted to run that far.”
Wilson’s parents were supportive of their four children’s athletic pursuits, regularly traveling to AAU and USATF age group track meets, where Ajee often ran the 3K or mile (more of the stuff she loved), and often won. But beyond speed and endurance, there was something remarkable about her—for a newcomer to the sport, she was confident but not brash, eager to test herself, and to learn. To Disa Nicholson, a youth track club and high school track coach in New York City, the nine-year-old Wilson stood out right away.
“Ajee wasn’t very tall then, but she would get in there and compete, quietly and fearlessly, with bigger girls who were Junior Olympic champions,” Nicholson said. “She competed like she belonged there, like a champion. There are some things you can’t teach—I recognized she was something special, like a Serena Williams or a Michael Jordan—that kind of special. As an athlete, but also as a person, Ajee’s a rare gem.”
Nicholson shared her observations with Wilson’s parents, with whom she became friends. By the time she got to high school, Wilson was a Junior Olympic veteran and widely acknowledged in the close-knit world of youth track as a world-class talent waiting to happen. From her perspective, she was just a 14-year-old having fun.
Wilson proved a stalwart point-earner for her high school track team, the imaginatively named Academy of Allied Health and Science, regularly competing in the 400, 800, 1600, 4x400 and often the sprint and distance medley relays, in both indoor and outdoor seasons. She ran cross-country in the fall, which as Nicholson pointed out, is not a popular choice for African-American kids. Even as a lanky freshman, her high school times—55 seconds for 400 meters, 2:09 for 800, and 4:46 for 1600—were exceptional, leading to an even more eye-opening 2:07 performance in the 800 meters at the Junior Olympics the summer between her freshman and sophomore years. This proved to be an unexpected roadblock.
“By the beginning of her sophomore year in high school, Ajee was not progressing as she could have. She had no one to compete with,” Nicholson said. “I talked with her parents about nurturing her extraordinary talent. I told them I could help connect them with a team, because Ajee could be an amazing athlete.”
Nicholson introduced the Wilsons to Derek Thompson, long-time coach of Juventus Track Club, whose work with kids in middle and long distances she admired. There was one hitch—Thompson was in Philadelphia, a nearly two-hour drive from the Wilson’s home in New Jersey. Solution? Wilson continued to compete on her high school track team using workouts Thompson devised, and made the trek to Philadelphia on Sundays for a face-to-coach workout.
The relationship paid dividends immediately. Wilson adapted quickly to professional and international competition, placing fifth (2:04.15) in the 800 at the 2010 World Junior Championships, and the following year, winning the World Youth Championship in 2:02.64. A few weeks after her high school graduation in 2012, Wilson failed to make the finals at the Olympic Track Trials, but regrouped and again won the World Junior Championship in 2:00.91. A month later, eighth place in the women’s 800-meter finals at the London Olympics was 2:00.19.
“I was watching that and thought, I’m kind of close,” said Wilson.
Hotly recruited by colleges, Wilson had tentatively decided to run at Florida State, but after discussion with coach Derek Thompson and a nice contract offer from Adidas, she decided to pursue professional track and higher education separately, like two full-time jobs. She enrolled at local Brookdale Community College in the fall of 2012 and continued working with Thompson.
“I hadn’t followed track, as a profession, in high school—I was sort of in my own bubble. I didn’t even know professional track was an option; I didn’t know about the Diamond League [the premier prize-money track circuit],” Wilson said. “Luckily, Coach Thompson and other people around me were well connected and knew what’s going on. We talked about it and going pro was a smart choice based on where I was and where I wanted to go. Adidas agreed to cover my education, which was my main goal. I thought, even if I wasn’t successful, I’d get an education.”
The plan worked, as Wilson placed third in the 2013 US Championship (1:59.55) which earned her a place on the World Championship team in Moscow.
In the fall of 2013, Wilson transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, and continued training with Thompson and the Juventus youth team. While comfortable and convenient, Wilson’s only training partner that year was a speedy high school boy. Which was still pretty sweet: the two were both students and closer in age than Wilson is to most professional athletes. It was a perfect low-key transition to two stressful new situations—college and professional running.
“We’re both really competitive,” Wilson said, laughing. “When he first ran 1:56, I was like, man, now he’s faster than me. But I have a faster 1600, so I still have a little pride.”
While still the head coach of the 8-to-17-year-olds at Juventus, Thompson has proven successful with elite-level athletes too, though he declined to talk about specifics of his program. Nicholson mentioned two of Thompson’s strengths: a keen understanding of how to guide adolescent athletes through the tricky transition from junior to senior competition, and a predilection for introducing black kids to all events, not just sprints. Thompson’s professional crew has grown to include Brit Lucy Yates, 5,000-meter specialist Marielle Hall, Jamaican 800-meter runner Kimarra McDonald and “some guys.” This small circle now constitutes not only Wilson’s training partners but her social posse.
“I don’t hang out with people from Temple too much,” she said. “I usually want to get back from class so I can take a nap before the workout.” Napping, by the way, is crucial—the only pre-race ritual she engages in is a nap just before warming up.
Wilson was ranked No. 2 in the world in 2014—that’s catapulted both her and Thompson into new and rarified territory. “Our approach to racing is different this year,” she said. “I used to get by, do the best I could. There was not a lot of pressure. We were focusing on catching two or three people. Now I’m stronger, we’re trying different approaches rooted in the confidence I’ve built in training.”
More training partners has upped the quality of her workouts. “This is the first time we’ve ever done a lot of this stuff, sprint and distance. I’ve never experienced this level of hurt,” she laughed. Example? “A three-mile tempo run—I just try to stay close to Marielle [Hall] for as long as I can.”
Eleven years ago, Disa Nicholson was struck by the young Wilson’s eagerness to learn the intricacies of training and racing, and apply what she’d learned on the track. Wilson still does a lot of listening, and not much talking.
“I don’t always know why we’re doing certain workouts, and I don’t always want to know why. I just know the workouts he [Thompson] gives me are going to get me ready. During the race, I’m literally thinking of nothing except the plan my coach gave me.”
A great deal of the drama in the two-lap 800 meter race comes from the fact that the athlete’s position on the final turn often has more impact on the race’s result than who is fastest. Wilson has a genius for being in the right place at the right time, and she’s in prime position right now to bring the U.S. back to 800-meter glory.