AJEE' WILSON AT THE IAAF World Championships ... and beyond
Summer School for Ajee' Wilson didn't end with her sensational 6th-place finish in the women's 800-meter final at the 14th IAAF World Championships of Track and Field in Moscow.
Not at all.
Four days after the Luzhniki Stadium final in the Russian capitol, the 19-year, 3-month-old Neptune, N.J. prodigy moved on to the DN Galan Diamond League Meet at Olympic Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden -- the historic, still-very-much-in-use site of the 1912 Olympic Games -- and improved to 4th place in an ultra-strategic race which she had a very good shot at winning as the top contenders roared around the final turn and into the homestretch.
Well, Ajee' (pronounced Ah-jay) didn't win this one, either, but she was right in the mix until the final strides and wound up 4th - her top finish thus far in her first full year on the sport's biggest-time circuit. And she beat two of the runners who finished ahead of her in Moscow.
With a 1:59.96 clocking on this chilly evening in Scandinavia, she broke two minutes for the third time this season, was just 1.12 shy of winning it all, and solidified her reputation as a master strategist of the two-lap event. Newly-crowned World champion Eunice Jepkoech Sum of Kenya won it in 1:58.94; with USA veteran Alysia Johnson Montano, the fourth-placer in Moscow, second this time in 1:58.96; and Malika Akkaoui of Morocco the only other runner ahead of Wilson at 1:59.96.
But behind Ajee' in Stockholm were three celebrities.
Ekaterina Poistogova of Russia, who’d twice given Wilson big-time elbowings down the Luzhniki stretch -- jabs that might have brought a DQ call if only they had been formally protested -- to assure her fifth place in Worlds, ran fifth in Stockholm.
Sixth was Sweden's own Abeba Aregawi, who’d won the World Championships gold medal at 1500 meters. And seventh was USA teammate Brenda Martinez, third-placer in Moscow.
Weldon Johnson of the LetsRun.com website, probably said it best after this one:
“This was the first race all year on the circuit where Ajee' Wilson looked like she was trying to win and could win. The youngster came very close to a surprise medal in Moscow and here she was in her next race, battling for the lead with the World Champ onto the final straight. Wilson made a very dramatic move on the backstretch to get into contention. A more gradual move and this one could have turned out differently.
“Ajee’s is no longer just the World Junior Champion with a very bright future who is outclassed at the senior level. She now is an immediate factor on the world stage. And her future looks very, very bright.”
And that’s the truth, the whole truth.
It's been one magical thing after another for Ajee' Wilson in her already-lustrous career that began as a standout in the kids’ and Junior Olympic ranks.
She was a fixture at Shore AC-staged summer All-Comers meets and not only excelled running all distances at each week's events, but as a racewalker, as well. “I can still see Ajee' as a 7-year-old, gliding around the track at the All Comers' meets,” remembers Donna Cetrulo, Shore AC teammate and former club secretary.
One thing, of course, led to another and another.
Sure enough, she became a dominating factor on the Monmouth County, Shore Conference and NJSIAA scholastic circuits in New Jersey, running for the Neptune High School Fliers. These teams were coached by Dawn Bowles-Fitch, the former NCAA champion for LSU and USA internationalist in the hurdles, who spent several years traveling the same global circuit Wilson now tours.
And Wilson's horizons - like they did for so many others - broadened immensely once she tasted a series of successes at the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation's indoor and outdoor National Championships. Who can forget the 2:00.59 (auto-timed) anchor she ran on the winning sprint medley winner at the 2010 New Balance Nationals Outdoor – just a soph at the time? That summer, she made the World Junior team and finished 5th in Moncton.
That experience paid great dividends, as by the summer of 2011, she was the World Youth Championships gold medalist, leading home the planet's finest 17-unders in Lille, France in 2:02.64. Meanwhile, she had captured the first of two New Balance Nationals Indoor 800 titles (2011-12).
Bowing out in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympic Trials would prove a big blessing in disguise -- it freed her to focus on the World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain's 1992 Olympic Stadium. Sure enough, she came through again against her top contemporaries, bringing home the gold in 2:00.91.
After graduation with honors from Neptune's Academy of Allied Health and Science, across the street from Neptune High proper, some major decisions were made. She'd been heavily recruited, just as you'd expect, by many of the nation's top colleges and eventually chose Florida State as her destination.
But, after long consideration of all her options, she put FSU on one-year delay and opted to take her first college courses at Monmouth County's own Brookdale Community College. As 2012 turned into 2013, even bigger calls were made.
She wouldn't be going to Florida State -- or running collegiately anywhere. She signed an adidas contract which both freed her to run the open circuit, and guaranteed her four-year tuition at Philadelphia's Temple University. Not since Allyson Felix turned pro after high school - and would later attend Southern Cal - had any young USA women’s prospect done such a thing.
This move proved a winner, too, as Wilson -- now training under Philadelphia-based coach Derek Thompson -- continued living up to all her expectations, and more. Winning the USA Indoor Nationals 800 title in Albuquerque was the first major dividend. Placing third in the USA Outdoor Nationals at Drake University -- and besting two minutes for the first time with a 1:59.55 in third place -- was the second big bonus.
And that sent her on the way -- across “The Pond” to appearances in the Paris (2:00.90) and London (2:00.20) Diamond League meets. USA National Training Camp sessions in Linz, Austria would send her off to Moscow full of new -- but still quiet -- confidence.
She was never awed by running on the world's biggest stage. Not at all. Not even close. Instead, she rose to three consecutive occasions at Luzhniki Stadium. A 2:00.00 3rd-place run in the quarter-finals was an automatic qualifier into the semis. And a 2:00.90 run in her semi -- again placing third -- put her into the eight-runner final.
The final was a dramatic race, full of tactical maneuvers, along with big-time physicality. “I knew it was fast, I just didn't know how fast,” was her immediate post-race reaction. But when she peered up at the giant Luzhniki Stadium scoreboard, Wilson saw the numbers that told the story -- 1:58.21.
Not only was this the fastest 800-meter clocking of her life, good for a sensational 6th-place in these 14th World Championships, but it was an American Junior (19-under) record as well. “I think it pretty much played out how my coach (Thompson) thought it would,” said Wilson, still full of quiet modesty.
“The first quarter was really fast. We knew it was going to go out fast in the first 400. So the goal was just to stay relaxed and run within myself and go through a pace that was decent for me.”
It was just that and she made a late stretch move that brought her up to 4th place, just 50 meters to go. But a medal just wasn't in the cards.
As Kenya's Sum (1:57.38) and Russia's Mariya Savinova (1:57.80) were running down the front-running Montano -- whose lead at one time was 10 full meters -- and going on to a 1-2 finish, another American, Martinez, and Russia's Ekaterina Poistogova were making desperate stretch runs of their own.
Poistogova's progress, as videos clearly showed, was at the young American's expense -- she'd knocked Wilson off stride with those sharp elbows.
Martinez (1:57.91) wound up taking the bronze; Montano (1:57.95) settled for fourth, her desperation dive over the finish line falling 4/100ths short.
Poistogova was fifth (1:58.05) and Wilson, now running far into the second lane, took sixth. Trailing were Natalia Lupu of Ukraine (1:59.79) and Lenka Masna of Czech Republic (2:00.59.)
Wilson's 1:58.21 was a lot more than the fastest two laps of her life, topping the 1:59.55 she'd run at the USA Nationals at Drake eight weeks earlier. but it bested the 1:59.51 that Bronxville, N.Y'.s Mary Cain had run in May as a USA Junior mark.
Further statistics: the 1:58.21 was the 12th fastest time ever run by a Junior runner (19 and under) of any nation, a list topped by Pamela Jelimo's 1:54.01 for Kenya in 2008, and just 37/100ths off the fastest-ever 800 by a New Jerseyan at any level -- Joetta Clark's 1:57.84 in 1998.
“When all this started, I never thought I'd wind up sixth,” said Wilson, who never once complained -- and she had a right to -- about Poistogova's aggressive tactics.
She'd dared not be that overly optimistic before the start.
But now that it happened -- complete with all the ancillary benefits, a likely World Top-10 ranking, and a $6000 check courtesy of the sponsoring International Association of Athletics Federations -- she was still trying, in typical fashion, to take it all in stride.
On return from Europe, it will be time to start readying for Temple University (where big sister Jade was a top performer for the Owls in the hurdles and relays).
It will be time to begin plotting her competitive schedule for 2014, and 2015, too. And surely time to do some serious thinking about Olympic Year 2016. After all that's happened in 2013, a podium appearance in Rio De Janeiro seems a definite maybe.
That once-7-year-old kid “gliding around the track” in All-Comers meets has already come a long, long way. And the best travels seem just ahead.