Ajee’ Wilson, photo by Larry Eder
One of the finest races of last weekend’s Millrose Games was the women’s 800 meters. Elliott Denman caught up with Ajee’ and wrote this piece on the pride of Neptune, New Jersey.
AJEE’ WILSON, THE PRIDE
OF NEPTUNE, NEW JERSEY, USA.
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
NEW YORK – Steve McDuffie was a heckuva high school runner, racking up mile win after mile win on the track, along with all kinds of success in cross country.
He did all this for the Neptune High School Fliers of Neptune Township, N.J., before going on to Seton Hall University.
Darren Boone isn’t the best-known runner in his family. The distinction belongs his wife, Dawn Bowles, who’d gone from Neptune High to NCAA and SEC-championship status at Louisiana University and then toured the global circuit for years as one of the world’s top hurdlers as a USA internationalist.
These days, she’s back at Neptune High, as the head coach of the very-very successful Neptune Fliers of the girl’s track world. Husband Darren is an assistant coach.
And there they were, McDuffie and Boone, perched in great balcony seats directly opposite the finish line at the New Balance Armory Track and Field Center Saturday, perfectly positioned to see the great things they knew were certain to unfold down on the Armory’s super-fast banked 200-meter track as the Armory filled up and the events of the 109th NYRR Millrose Games rolled right alongthrough the afternoon and early evening.
They certainly had that one right.
Starting at noon, the 60-event Millrose program got better and better, hotter and hotter.
The Neptune High School track and field program, of course, has been hot and hotterall these years, too.
Its sprinters have done legendary things.
There was Jim Freeman, who in the early 1960s had always been a threat to Frank Budd, the world record-breaker and Olympian out of Neptune’s next-door neighbor, Asbury Park.
There was another dazzling dashman in Bergen King, who ran second in the Millrose 60 one year while still in high school. Another sprinter, as good as any of his era, was Neptune’s Ricardo “Ricky” Hopkins. And maybe better than either of them was Flier John Chambers, who blazed the 100 yards in 9.4 in 1974.
There was a great Neptune 400 man named Mike Peniston, who won everything in sight for the Fliers of the mid-1970s.
Larry Bunting was just one of the many brilliant Neptune hurdlers over the years. It’s no wonder that a 1979 Neptune team lowered the national record in the shuttle hurdles to 57.3.
When the girls side of the sport came of age, Neptune athletes began playing leadership roles there, too.
Stephanie Saleem was one of them, as talented and successfulas anybody in the nation at 400 meters in the early 80s.Soon, hurdler Dawn Bowles was keeping Neptune in the track and field headlines, as well.
Coaches Harry Kacandes and Jack Morton, then Hank Nonnenberg and Caleb Morse, then John Chambers and now Dawn Bowles, have kept all these Fliers at the top of their game for years and years.
So, if it seems like there has something big to cheer about in Neptune track forever, it’s really the truth, the whole truth.
Which brings this story up to the third Saturday of February, 2016.
Neptune’s own Ajee’ Wilson is surely a huge part of that tradition. It seems she’s been making news and running to stardom for at least half her life.
And she’s stillnearly three months away from her 22nd birthday.
The honors began amassing for Wilson as a pre-teen and they’ve never ceased.
This young lady could really run, and run.
Good as she was as a high schooler – enrolled in the Academy of Allied
Health and Science, the high-academic adjunct to the across-the-street
Neptune High School – followers of the sport in this vicinity of the Garden State always knew that she was destined to do things that
were better and better.
They have not been disappointed.
Her climb up the local, state, regional, national and international ladders has beenamazingly steady. Speed bumps have been few.
World Youth and World Junior 800-meter titles have paved the way to three USA 800-meter titles, two indoors, one outdoors.
Backed a tuition-assuring adidas contract, Wilson’s decision to eschew college competition has proven to a winning call. But she hasn’t eschewed college, either.
After initial enrollment in Brookdale Community College, she’s moved on to Philadelphia’s Temple University and is on track to a degree within a year.
Having no college track schedule to follow has allowed her to train under Juventus Track Club coach Derek Thompson in Philadelphia and it’s been a win-win-win arrangement since day one.
She’s had just one serious setback all this time – the gradual leg problems that forced her out of the 2015 World Outdoor Championships in Beijing.
Now, though, it’s looking like it may have been something of a blessing in disguise.
She’s fully rehabbed and fully psyched to meet all the challenges of traveling whatmany reckon will be a Road to Rio. Her absence from competition for the latter part of the 2015 campaign may even have served as a guide to limiting any physical over-extension, and a huge lesson in limiting risk in the buildup to July’s Olympic Trials.
The 2:00.09 Wilson win in the Emblem Health Elite women’s 800at Millrose 2016 was the fastest time in the world this year, but more importantly, a study in racing savvy. An array of challengers was poised to upset the Wilson applecart.
But an upset simply wasn’t to be.
Pacesetter Latosha Wallace “took it out” in 26.8 before Jamaica’s (and Clemson’s)Natoya Goule and Britain’s Lynsey Sharp claimed command past 400 in 59 flat.
By 600 meters, though, it was USA teammate Brenda Martinez out front in 1:30.1 with the Armory-capacity crowd of 5,000-plus yelling and screaming, knowing that something sensational was unfolding in front of them.
Coolly, calmly Wilson reasserted herself, gliding past Martinez on the final
backstretch and holding on for the win in a typically triumphant drive to the line.
Martinez (2:00.14) wound up just 5/100ths back of Wilson’s Global Number one 2:00.09. And right on all their heels were Oregon grad Laura Roesler (2:00.49), Oregon prodigy Raevyn Rogers (2:00.90) and Sharp (2:01.55.)
The sellout crowd, of course, loved it.
It put all of them in a perfect mood to generate even more enthusiasm (and noise) for the meet-concluding men’s Wanamaker Mile, won dramatically by Matthew Centrowitz (3:50.63) over Nick Willis (3:51.06), Chris O’Hare (3:52.91), Robby Andrews (3:53.16) and four more who broke four minutes.
“That was a great, great race in a great Millrose meet,” lauded Armory Track Foundation Dr. Norbert Sander. ” I’m just sorry the time wasn’t in the 3:49s”.
Encountered soon after her triumph, Wilson said “this just makes me really optimistic about everything that’s ahead (topped by the USA Indoor Nationals and, likely, the World Indoors in Portland.)
“My coach (Thompson), he’s just brilliant. He had this one all figured out, he knewexactly how it was going to go.”
“And that made it easy for me. I didn’t have to focus on anything else. I was ready for exactly what happened.”
Up in the balcony, Steve McDuffie and Darren Boone were smiling the smile of allsmiles. They knew exactly what was going to happen, too.
The young lady from the town that’s been generating track talent forever
had done it again. There was no reason to doubt that she could do it for
Neptune, New Jersey- and the rest of the USA – when even more than a Millrose Games title was at stake.