Kate Grace, Churonu Williams, Ajee’ Wilson, photo by PhotoRun.net
Here is Elliott Denman’s heartfelt piece on Ajee’ Wilson, and athlete he has followed since she started running.
By ELLIOTT DENMAN
EUGENE, OREGON – I went through every good-luck maneuver I could think of this Fourth of July.
My breakfast was a bowlful of Ajee Wilson/Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, dotted with a handful of
I picked out my best red shirt, to go with my best black shorts, for the short drive from
Parnell Street, down River Road, left on 18th Street, to Hayward Field. That was the red and that was the black of Neptune High School, Ajee Wilson’s first coming-of-age as a world-class middle distance runner, first real track team.
I did a little bow in a generally eastward and Neptune, New Jersey direction, conjuring up the best “may this be your day of days” visions I could manage.
I uttered a few oaths about the rampant provinciality of the whole Eugene scene at these Trials, which some folks around these Hayward Field premises seem to consider an Oregon-versus-the-other-49 skirmish I muttered something rather intense when I read,
over Ajee’s Corn Flakes, a Register-Guard lead writer’s portrayal of English Gardner’s stunning victory Sunday in the women’s 100-meter final: “Sprinter English Gardner will carry the Oregon banner to Rio de Janeiro in August….”
Out-of-it me just hadn’t heard that The Nation of Oregon would be marching in on its own, likely following Oman but preceding Palau. Well that was big news, specially so since English Gardner’s “nation of origin” was not Oregon but New Jersey.
And I smiled when Mr. Frank Ratti, the once-upon-a-time champion Bradley Beach, N.J. lifeguard, and stalwart marathon man of the Shore Athletic Club, a Eugene resident of over four decades standing, told me that he had run into another Shore AC marathon man, Mr. Dave Patterson, at that morning’s Butte-to-Butte Eugene road race.
Something was clearly brewing this Independence Day.
I counted it a bit more of good luck when Christine, the lady at the security gate to Hayward Field, told me that, while she’s been living in Oregon for quite a few years now, her roots continue to stretch all the way back to Hazlet, New Jersey (Exit 117) and she’d never, ever let them be snipped away.
Attention Garden State Parkway drivers/riders: Neptune is Exit 100A / B.
Let it be known that Shore AC is, of course, the ancestral track club, too, of Neptune’s Ajee Wilson. She represented Shore AC at some of her early Nationals. And she’s so aware of the legacy she’s forever building that she’s already donating heaps of her hard-earned trophies to the top performers at the Shore AC summer all-comers meets held at, where else?, Neptune
Oh, did you know that Ajee’ Wilson had all the makings of a child-prodigy, world-class racewalker? As seen at those all-comers meets. Or until she discovered the greater joy
of middle-distance running.
I had long mulled “was this really the right call, the best call?” when Ajee’ Wilson politely declined the scholarship offer of Florida State University – and array of other
suitors – to sign a three-striped, professional contract with the adidas Co.
I shuddered a bit, but then applauded when I learned the contract assured her tuition to Temple University, where she is now just a few credits shy of graduation.
Dutifully armed with proper press credentials, I have since tracked this now 22-year-old’s
progress from the vista of working press tribunes and mixed zones ranging from New York to Albuquerque to Boston to Philly to Moscow to Nassau/Bahamas, to Eugene, and a whole bunch more lively locales.
And what a progression it’s been. Junior Olympic champion. Shore Conference and NJSIAA (scholastic) champion. World Youth Champion. World Junior Champion. World Relays Champion. World Outdoor Championships finalist. World Indoor Championships silver-medalist. World (year-list) leader (at 1:57.67 in 2014.)
And more and more.
Mind you, it hasn’t all been one success leading directly to another, and another.
There were those mishaps on the ladder going up-up-up. A trip-up running the 600 at Indoor Nationals. A lost shoe (which contributed to the injury which kept her out of the 2015 World Championships in China, and kept her out of action while she rehabbed all last summer.)
And some shuddering (when she beat just about nobody in brief early-June 2016 Pre-Trials excursions to Diamond League races in Rome and Birmingham.) Followed by some exhaling when she ran that then-USA-leading 1:59.72 at Somerville, Mass. on June 17.
Well, call all this a prelude to the Fourth of July 2016 events at Hayward Field.
“The women’s (800) competition remains stacked,” wrote Chris Hansen in the Register-Guard.
He delineated the dossiers of six-time U.S. champion Alysia Montano; of Brenda Martinez, a Trials threat at both 800 and 1500 meters; of Molly Ludlow, twice a fourth-place finisher at a USA Nationals, one of them the 2012 Olympic Trials; of Raevyn Rogers, the Oregon sophomore who is already a two-time NCAA champion, along with Yale grad Kate Grace, Arkansas grad Chrishuna Williams, and Tennesse grad Phoebe Wright.
And then he quoted Ajee’ Wilson: “Every Trials there’s always major stories of heartbreak and also victorious stories of people who weren’t expected to do well and did.”
Ajee’ Wilson was clearly prescient.
The race went off right on dot of 5:42 p.m.
As the field stayed tightly bunched, the potential for a traffic mishap was as clear at Hayward Field as the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour.
Montano led through 200 in 27.73 and 400 in 57.46. Martinez moved from seventh at 200 to second at 400.
Rogers was second at 400 but fifth at 600. Ludlow was never higher than fourth.
With 200 left, Grace was still sixth and Williams still seventh.
Wilson, meanwhile, was keeping cool and staying clear of the heavy traffic around her,
And then the chaos began.
Martinez drifted out, Montano was forced to run around her.
Montano went down, reduced to a tearful crawl and eventual 3:06.77 finish.
Martinez struggled home seventh in 2:06.63, Wright sixth in 2:02.55.
Rogers managed a fifth in 2:00.58.
Williams and Ludlow would battle it for the third and final Olympic berth. Williams squeezed it out, 1:59.59 to 1:59.63.
Fortunately clear of the wreckage to her rear, Wilson raced home second in 1:59.51.
And Yalie Grace would win it all, with the tactical 1:59.10 that would become the race of her life.
So it will be Grace, Wilson and Williams trekking the Road to Rio, leaving the carnage for others to handle.
There are strict rules of neutrality in the press boxes of this nation and I had forever abided by all such such strictures.
I was not about to make an exception, even for this one.
But, deep down inside me, I detected something very positive going on.
The young lady I’d tracked all over the globe would be living up to all the expectations.
She’d conquered the Corn Flakes/Frosted Flakes jinx. She’d stayed on her feet when others around her were crashing to tears, lifetime dreams shattered.
All the omens – the New Jersey connections, Frank Ratti, Dave Patterson, Christine, and more – had proven accurate.
Prescience had truly paid.
With the five-ringed present that is any athlete’s finest vision.
For the runner seen on the Kellgogg’s boxes now available on supermarket shelves all around the land, and the man with the press credential who’d been tracking all this progress for all these years.
While many would say the fireworks had already been detected – at Hayward Field – the real pyrotechnics would be heard just a bit later this Fourth of July.