NEPTUNE, N.J. - This Monmouth County, New Jersey, township of some 27,000-plus, was named for the trident-bearing God of the Sea.
But it’s been Neptune’s dry-land citizen-athletes who have been putting their community on the sporting map for years and years and years. Especially those of the footracing variety.
Neptune High School has been the home base of a long line of outstanding track and field teams and these Fliers, both male and female, are no strangers to the record books of all varieties.
One more entry on the record list appears imminent.
The United States girls national scholastic 800-meter record of 2:00:07, set by Kimberly “Kim” Gallagher of Upper Dublin High in Fort Washington, Pa. all the way back in 1982, is clearly on the brink of erasure.
Friendly rivals based on opposite coasts will lead the assault on 2:00.07 this spring and summer.
Out West, there’s Amy Weissenbach of Harvard-Westlake High of North Hollywood, who ran 2:02.04 last year and was named Gatorade National High School athlete of the year.
Back East, there’s Neptune’s own Ajee’ (pronounce it Ah-Zhay) Wilson, who clocked a 2:02.64 in winning the gold medal at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Lille, France, last July, and beating Weissenbach in the process.
With Wilson victorious over the Stanford-bound Weissenbach in their biggest confrontation thus far, she became the winter-book choice to be the first to “break 2 and relegate Gallagher’s name to a secondary role in the archives. Through the indoor season of 2012, and now into the early stages of this spring outdoor campaign, Wilson has continued to bolster her credentials.
Not only is she expected by many to run the first sub-2, but she’s the strongest of candidates for the IAAF World Junior Championships, set for July 10-15 in Barcelona.
Oh yes, there’s that other event scheduled for London some two weeks after the World Juniors conclude. Yes, Ajee’ Wilson, already a nine-time New Jersey state champion and the USATF 2011 Youth Athlete of the Year, is an USA Olympic Team candidate, too, and we’ll see her in the Trials..
She’s been a competing track athlete since age 9. She’s long been “traveling the circuit.” And one of the biggest things she’s learned is not to look too far beyond her next scheduled race. Yes, Ajee’ Wilson surely knows that she’s in an anything-can-happen, and often-will kind of sport. It’s always been a step-by-step process.
“When I was real young, my mom (Mrs. Tonya Wilson, herself a former track standout at Asbury Park High School and Trenton State College) put us in a bunch of different sports, just to keep us active,” she tells you in a trackside interview at Neptune’s track stadium.
“My dad, Zach Wilson, was an athlete, too. He ran track, played football and baseball, did a lot of different things.
“As a kid, I tried soccer, softball, basketball, but soccer was really my favorite. We never really thought about track. But then my (younger) sister, Brietta, just decided to do track and I guess that started us all off.
“ ‘You can do it, you can do it,’ Brietta kept telling us. I eventually said ‘OK.’ I guess Brietta was right.”
Right on the button.
“Initially, I really didn’t like running that much,” admitted Wilson. “But now I’ve come to love it, and a big reason is all the great people I’ve met and the places I’ve been able to travel to.
“I guess that’s a main thing now.”
As she went through her strides at the Neptune track, she wore an “Australia” cap,
a souvenir exchanged with a new friend from Down Under, acquired in Lille. And a token of what she now likes most about her sport.
“I haven’t been to Australia yet, though. Maybe someday.”
From her earliest days on, Wilson rose through the ranks quickly, running up the ladder of local and state meets, regional events and the National Junior Olympics.
One of the first times she was ever clocked for two laps, as a pre-teen, she stopped the watches at 2:27, and her potential became clear.
By the time she entered her freshman year of high school (she actually attends the Academy of Allied Health and Science, while competing for Neptune High, located just across the street), she was a known candidate for much higher honors.
Neptune High is a member of the Shore Conference (schools in Monmouth and Ocean counties) and has long been recognized as a gold mine of talent. Shore Conference schools have produced an array of Olympians, internationalists and record-breakers, such stars as Frank Budd, Barbara Friedrich, Bill Reilly, Quentin Wheeler, Milton Goode, Andrew Valmon, Pam Dukes and many more.
Neptune’s own most famous alumna was hurdles and sprint great/ NCAA champion/ Pan Am Games and World Championships team member Pam Bowles. It was Bowles’ return to coach the Neptune High girls team a few years ago that signaled the school’s track resurgence and now it’s Bowles coaching Wilson, along with club coach Derek Thompson.
The Shore Conference’s alumnae lineup of girls middle distance racing talent in recent years is lengthy: Cate and Maggie Guiney, Amanda and Katy Trotter, Mary Banks, Lindsay Gallo, Ashley Higginson, Danielle Tauro, Amanda Marino, Allison Linnell, Jillian Smith, Molly McNamara, and more.
Now it’s Wilson who transcends them all.
After winning the 2010 USATF Junior National 800 title in 2:05.74 at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, outfooting several noted collegians in the process, she headed for the IAAF World Juniors in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada.
“I was really nervous going into that one,” she remembered. But she showed rare cool in claiming a solid fifth place in 2:04.18, spotting up to three years of age and experience to some rivals.
A victory in the USA World Youth Trials in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, became her ticket to the 2011 World Youth Championships in France.
When she ran that 2:02.64 in Lille, it finally bested the New Jersey state record of 2:03.54 set by eventual four-time Olympian Joetta Clark, then of Maplewood’s Columbia High School, in 1979..
Her Lille review: “I got out pretty well, and was with the lead pack much of the way. With about 300 left, I started moving up. Then with 200 left, I just moved past everybody.
“I was just happy the way that raced turned out.”
And who wouldn't ?
Amazingly, she did it despite turning an ankle - kidding around playing soccer with sister Brietta - just a month before.
With 2:02.64 in the books, she continued widening her horizons as a Neptune senior this winter, running few high school-only events to focus on open-level racing against some of the nation’s and the world's top senior-level performers.
At the U.S. Open Meet at Madison Square Garden, she ran a 2:09.09 for second place in the elite 800 back of Ethiopian ace Fantu Magiso, who ran 2:07.54. Next, she clocked a 2:04.13 running fourth at the Millrose Games at the Armory.
In a quick trip to Jamaica, she displayed her eye-opening speed, zipping a 52-second,400, running third leg in the 4x400 relay at the Gibson Relays, rallying her American team to a 3:37.23 triumph over Jamaica’s best youngsters.
Returning to NYC to complete her indoor season, she blazed to a 2:06.58 win over Bronxville, N.Y. star Mary Cain to take the gold in the New Balance Indoor Nationals.at the Armory. The hot pace continued through the early phases of the 2012 Northeast outdoor campaign.
Racing against fields of elders, she won her section of the women’s 1,500 meters at Widener University’s Danny Curran Meet, took her 1,500 section in 4:28.59 at Princeton’s Sam Howell meet, then showed typical cool in coming from behind to cruise to a 2:05. 28, meet-record 800 win at Princeton’s Larry Ellis Memorial Meet. In each of the three, she outran fields of top collegiate talent.
Speed as well as strength play vital roles in her training.
She’s capable of running 200s in the 23s, 400s in the 50s or 51s.
For the past year, she’s had multiple coaches. It’s the best of all worlds.
At Neptune High, she drills under Dawn Bowles, as well as Darren Boone, Bowles’ husband and assistant coach.
“What she’s capable of is beyond anyone’s thoughts,” said Bowles. “I don’t put anything past her,. She’s mentally there, she’s physically there, she’s not afraid of any competition. The sky’s the limit.
“Two minutes? Yes, it’s truly, truly do-able.
“Every year, she’s improved at least three seconds (over 800.) She’s already run 2:04 in 2012 and that was indoors. So 2:01, 2-flat, I definitely see it coming this year.”
Adds Boone: “Knowing Ajee’ since the sixth grade, she’s just as world class in the classroom and in the community as she is on the track.
“Ajee’ can take this sport as far as she wants. She can see the world. She can reach the heights, As to her potential, no one knows her limits. We know she will run great miles, but her greater strength is in the 800. She is built for that distance.
“Her work ethic overshadows her true talent. No matter how well she does, it never is good enough. We’re just seeing the beginning of a great history for Ajee’ Wilson. She can take it as far as she wants."
Most Sundays, she’s off to Philadelphia to train with Coach Derek Thompson.
“They’re both really great,” Wilson says of the co-op partnership agreement. “Dawn is very understanding. There are no conflicts. It works out very well.”
With the National Juniors - and the Olympic Trials - on the horizon, Wilson’s high-school-only starts may be limited. But such is the price of widening horizons.
“Whatever happens in those big meets, I’ll just take things in stride,” she tells you. “I just want to be as ready as I possibly can. I think I can handle it.
“The Olympics? I can’t really think of that right now. If I think too far ahead, I’ll just get too nervous or psyched out.
“Breaking two minutes? That would be awesome. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, that would be fine with me, too.
“Kim Gallagher, I know she won those two Olympic 800-meter medals (silver in 1984, bronze in 1988), but I really don’t know much else about her. But she must have been a really great runner.”
With all of Wilson’s credentials, and an excellent academic record (3.5 grade-point average), virtually every major collegiate team in the nation came courting.
But she chose Florida State (where she’ll major in exercise science, pointing to a career in physical therapy) simply because that’s where I felt most comfortable. It was the best fit for me.
“Still, making that college decision was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Yes, definitely saying no to the others (including J.J. Clark, Joetta’s brother, at Tennessee), was so hard. Every school I visited I loved. Every one of them was so good.
“Each of them made it so hard for me to say no.”
Starting this fall, however, she’ll “just do it’‘ as a Florida State Seminole,
“Ajee’ has a tremendous amount of talent and is fueled by the intense desire to win,” said Florida State distance coach Karen Harvey. “She has proven to be one of the best middle distance runners in the world.”
FSU also recruited England’s Georgia Peel, another brilliant young middle distance runner, to its Class of 2016.
“They are world-class, world champion and world finalist people,” gushed Florida State head coach Bob Braman. “They’re very special people. They may be their national (junior) record-holders before the year is over.”
Before becoming training partners and teammates, however, they expect to challenge each other on some of the world’s biggest stages. Look for the fireworks. Track and field fans can’t wait.