Feature14 Jun 2015

Wilson finally feels at home among the world’s best


Ajee Wilson in action at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow (© Getty Images)

She may have just turned 21, but already Ajee Wilson has developed a bit of a pattern when it comes to major championships.

The US 800m runner set PBs in both the semi-final and final on her international debut, finishing fifth at the 2010 IAAF World Junior Championships at the age of 16.

Two more PBs came one year later – again in the semi-final and the final – at the IAAF World Youth Championships, where she won gold despite having twisted her ankle just a month prior to the event.

Then, at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships, the same thing happened again: two PBs and a gold medal.

At the 2013 IAAF World Championships, while still a junior, she didn’t quite set a PB in the semi-final – not everybody is perfect – but she more than made up for it in the final, setting a US junior record of 1:58.21 to finish sixth.

Not being fazed by – and indeed thriving off – that kind of pressure is an enviable trait to have. And from the perspective of her rivals, it’s a dangerous ability.

But Wilson doesn’t overanalyse things and hasn’t even given much thought to the way she naturally excels at major championships.

“I’m not sure what it is, but my coach noticed it too,” she said. “As the rounds go by, I get a lot faster. It just works out that way every time. Hopefully it will happen again in Beijing this year.”

Persuaded by younger sister

Youngsters are usually introduced to the sport by a parent or older relative, but for Wilson it was her younger sister who persuaded her to try athletics.

One of four children born to sporty parents, Wilson’s father Zachary played soccer, American football and baseball in his youth, while her mother Tonya Anderson was a talented athlete, dividing her time between the 400m hurdles, high jump and 800m.

Wilson’s younger sister Brietta took up athletics and managed to tempt her away from basketball and soccer. “She would tell me how much fun it was and how many friends she made from doing it,” said Wilson. She was sold.

It didn’t take long for Wilson to make an impact. In 2009, aged 15, she ran an 800m PB of 2:07.08 to end the year as the third-fastest youth athlete in the USA.

The following year, a friend convinced her that she should consider trying to qualify for the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton.

“I found out there was a whole other world to track and field during my sophomore year in high school,” said Wilson. “A friend of mine was telling my mom about the World Juniors and how I should try out. I was like, ‘meh, I don’t really want to do it’. I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to. But my parents told me that I should just try it, so I did.”

First, she had to qualify for the team. Despite being the youngest in the field and competing against athletes three years her senior, she won the US junior title in a PB of 2:05.75.

One month later, she kick-started her streak of setting PBs in international championship finals. The rest is history.

“After competing there, that’s when I began to realise there were so many opportunities in track and field,” said Wilson. “But I still didn’t realise you could make a living from the sport until just before I turned professional at the beginning of 2013.

“As sad as it is, I didn’t really follow the sport back then. I’d watch the big events, but I didn’t even know things like Diamond League meetings existed until I was getting ready to turn professional. It’s really pretty sad how out of touch I was.”

One of the top dogs

As a result of her prodigious talent, Wilson had a fast-track education in the world of track and field. She turned professional at the age of 18 and has quickly cemented herself among the best in the world, due in no small part to her coach, Derek Thompson, whom she joined in 2011.

It is a varied group at the Juventus Track Club in Philadelphia, where Wilson trains alongside US 5000m runner Marielle Hall, Jamaican 800m runner Kimarra McDonald, British middle-distance runner Lucy Yates and Puerto Rican distance runner Alfredo Santana.

“It’s pretty old school,” says Wilson, who studies kinesiology at nearby Temple University. “We’re outside every day, even if it’s snows. I’m just happy with where we’re at right now. We’re in a great place, definitely ahead of where I’ve been at this point of the season compared to previous years. I’m excited.”

A measure of Wilson’s form came earlier this year at the IAAF World Relays, Bahamas 2015, where she played a key part in the triumphant US team setting a world record in the distance medley relay.

“I rarely have the opportunity to break a record because in my event the standards are pretty high, so it feels awesome,” she said of her achievement.

Records may not be on the agenda for the rest of the year, but she is keen to win as many races as possible – including, of course, at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015.

There aren’t many events in which US athletes have not yet won a medal at the IAAF World Championships, but the 800m is one of them. Wilson could break that trend in the Chinese capital later this season.

First, though, is the small matter of qualifying for the team by finishing in the top three at the US Championships later this month.

“You can never take anything for granted when it comes to the US Trials,” said Wilson, who won the 800m at the recent IAAF Diamond League meeting in New York. “Anything can happen. On any given day, any person can take it. It’s important to be prepared for anything.”

Ever since clocking a PB of 1:57.67 last year, the fastest time in the world for 2014, Wilson has been touted as a medal favourite in Beijing. She came close to that time at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Eugene last month, finishing a close second to world champion Eunice Sum.

Last year she admitted to feeling like one of the new kids on the block, but in 2015 Wilson finally feels as though she deserves her place alongside the best in the world.

“It definitely took some time to get to that place just to get confident enough that I can run with the best and actually hang with them,” she said. “I definitely feel I belong now.”

And, given her past record, if she makes it into the 800m final in Beijing, Wilson’s rivals should know by now what to expect.

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF