Ajee Wilson: Setting Records, Having Fun
The Blossoming Of America’s Junior 800m Record Holder
May 11, 2014
When we are on the job and concentrating upon the tasks at hand, it is often easy to forget that there is no law prohibiting fun in the workplace. True enough; an effective office environment cannot realistically be a daily 9 to 5 party. But wise employers and employees understand that a relaxed work culture with just a dash of levity can often promote productivity, encourage a team approach to achieving goals, and basically bring out the best in people.
Anybody who has ever watched Ajee Wilson’s graceful stride and placid racing demeanor appreciates that she knows how to keep it fun and stay in the moment. One of four daughters, Ajee actually was encouraged by one of her sisters to take a shot at running. “My little sister actually got me into the sport,” she reveals. As a beginning athlete, Wilson ran a variety of distances. “I started out with the 400,” notes the Neptune, New Jersey native. “And then I dropped back to the 3K, then the 1500, then the 800.” High school track provided the perfect platform for Ajee to display her talents. “My freshman year I was second in the 1600,” notes Wilson in reflection upon her high school state meet accomplishments. “In my sophomore year, I won the 16. And by my senior year, I won the 400, the 800, the 1600, and I ran a leg on our winning 4 x 400 relay.”
Suddenly, the emerging middle distance star had lots of options. And with those options came lots of questions. Where would she continue her education and cultivate her demonstrated track potential? Could she be competitive now on the world stage? Might she even turn professional a la Allyson Felix? After careful deliberation, Ajee decided the professional pathway was her best choice. “It kinda just came about,” explains Wilson as she provides insight into all of the important considerations that were weighed. “I wanted to try and make the world championship team. I wanted to try and make that work. I wanted to take one year off to stay with my coach [Derek Thompson] and try to make the team. Yet I was also scheduled to go to Florida State. I just started thinking about it more. I thought it might be the best of both worlds if I stayed with my coach and went to school in New Jersey.” So in the fall of 2012, Wilson enrolled in a small New Jersey college as she went under contract with adidas. Wilson – who knew she was crossing the Rubicon – saw that her undistracted attention would be required. “Once I signed, I was like, ‘OK, this is my job now. I can’t be going back and forth if I’m going to try and make this successful.'”
How has it worked out? Well, since then Wilson has captured the 2013 and 2014 indoor national 800m crowns. She qualified in the 800m to make the 2013 USA World Championship team. In Moscow, she made the 800m final where her personal best time of 1:59.21 placed her sixth and allowed her to regain the American Junior 800m record which had been wrested away from her earlier in the summer by Mary Cain. Hey, Ajee, did you make the right decision? “Yes, definitely,” she smilingly responds without hesitation.
It is clear that Thompson’s tutelage is turning his talented middle distance protÃ©gÃ© into an experienced racer. At this year’s Penn Relay Carnival, Wilson was called upon to anchor for Team USA in the Sprint Medley. The anchor position is important in all relays, but perhaps never more so than in the speedy sprint medley where the 800m anchor runner covers half the total race distance. Wilson got the stick about 12 meters down on Jamaica’s anchor, Natalya Goule – the talented former LSU star with 2 flat speed. With 49,103 Franklin Field fans roaring, Wilson kept her cool. Chipping away at Goule’s margin, Wilson was still down 10 meters with 250 meters remaining. Could she make a race out of it? “I was unsure at that point. I didn’t know if I could do it,” she admits. “I still had a lot in reserve and I was going to give it a good run the last 200, that’s for sure. I was kinda watching her [Goule] to see how she was feeling and how she would respond to me. I didn’t know if she was just chilling or out of gas. I was hoping to be kinda strong. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, whoa, what’s going on? Either we’re going a slow pace or she’s just done right now.’ But she didn’t look like she was struggling or anything. When I caught up to her, Phoebe Wright yelled, ‘she’s starting to get tired!’ And I thought, ‘OK, maybe it’s time to go.'” Wilson’s patience paid off. Ajee caught Goule just off the final curve and sped home for an important victory for Team USA. Wilson’s 800 split of 1:59.6 – albeit with a flying start – compares favorably with this year’s AL mark of 1:59.75 set by world indoor 800m champion Chandelle Price and the 2014 WL time of 1:59.33 posted by world outdoor 800m titlist Eunice Som.
Wilson’s top shelf middle distance clockings belie her serene composure even under the most arduous race conditions. Does she ever show the effort? “It’s funny. That’s what my family asks: ‘Hey, Ajee, why aren’t you running hard? Trust me, I’m doing it [running hard],” laughs Wilson. “But when I get running, I just kinda go into a zone. My face just goes completely blank!”
As Wilson looks ahead to the meat of the outdoor season in year without a global championship, the budding middle distance specialist is looking to improve her racing skills. “That’s the main goal – to become a better racer, to actually compete instead of just finishing.” Wilson may also explore some longer racing distances. “I felt really good,” exclaims Wilson as she reviews her recent 1500 meter victory – in a personal best of 4:21. “I just stayed behind the front and just picked up over the last 200.” Ajee likes to keep her options open when discussing how the metric mile might fit into her further track development. “My coach has kinda mentioned it as a possibility,” notes Wilson in discussing the longer race. “As I get stronger little by little, we could try and work our way up to the 1500. It’s definitely a possibility for the future.”
The 800 specialist knows she is in the early stages of what many expect to be an impressive middle distance career. As such, she is cautious in addressing inquiries about her long term goals as an athlete. “I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I just kinda stay in the moment.” And after a measured pause, she adds, “At this time, I haven’t really set any long term goals.”
But Ajee Wilson has no hesitancy at all in addressing the light-hearted support system which has nurtured her development as a world class athlete. Is meeting the demands required for middle distance excellence still fun? “Yeah, it is more fun every year.” And Wilson is quick to explain why. “We keep it fun at practice. I practice with little kids. I train with a couple of kids that are twelve. And I train with another one who is 14 and two other kids.” And those kids can train with you? “Yeah. The little one goes on my long runs with me and he can run a 5K in under 18 minutes. He’s great. He’s a fighter.” But there’s more. “And my coach,” Wilson laughs in reference to Thompson. “He’s an undercover comedian. He’s a big part about always keeping it fun. He makes us laugh and calms us down
A familiar but somewhat shopworn expression – often passed along from parents to their children – is this: “Find something you love to do. Figure out a way to get paid for it. And you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Ajee Wilson – barely 20 years old, winning races, capturing championships, improving her performances, and setting records – has figured it out. Notwithstanding her undoubtedly strenuous days of multi-tasking through collegiate studies and elite level middle distance training and racing, she embraces her joyful journey with zest and enthusiasm. Hell, she ain’t working.