About a month before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the nation’s sports competitions, Ajee’ Wilson set an American record in the indoor 800-meter run, an indication to the world that she would be a strong contender for Olympic gold in 2020.
About a month after the pandemic had taken hold, Wilson accepted the fact that she might not be able to compete for the rest of the year, but would continue to train in Philadelphia to gain “the framework hopefully to still be as prepared and ready when [Olympic competition] comes around again.”
That time is here. When the Olympic 800 begins July 30 on the first day of track and field competition in Tokyo, Wilson will be part of a strong U.S. contingent looking for its first gold medal in the event since 1968 and first medal of any kind since Ambler’s Kim Gallagher won bronze in 1988.
It may have seemed like ages since the COVID-19 shutdown, but Wilson says it wasn’t that long. In fact, she feels time has flown by since her Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“Oddly enough, it’s gone pretty fast,” she said Tuesday, one day after returning to Philadelphia from the U.S. Olympic trials for track and field in Eugene, Ore. “It really feels like 2016 was a year or two ago. It’s crazy how fast time flies.
“But on the flip side, I also have a lot of memories or stepping-stones that have happened along the way to where I’m able to actually say, ‘OK, this has been a good chunk of time and I’m glad that I’ve been able to prepare and just stack and build and grow since then to come to 2021 Tokyo and be a better athlete and put my best foot forward.’”
Wilson, 27, who grew up in Neptune, N.J., and graduated from Temple, rallied in the final 100 meters of Sunday’s 800 final at the trials to secure Team USA’s third and final spot in 1 minute, 58.39 seconds. She finished behind 19-year-old winner Athing Mu and Raevyn Rogers, who trained at Philadelphia’s Juventus Track Club with Wilson for about two years before moving to Eugene.
“I was super proud that I was able to dig deep and get that third finishing spot,” Wilson said. “It’s definitely not where I need to be or want to be going into Tokyo, so I’m excited that I have the next five weeks to kind of just build and tune up and get everything together for the Games. But I’m happy, relieved, proud and I think I’m in a pretty fine position.”
Wilson holds the American records at 800 meters both outdoors (1:55.61, July 2017) and indoors (1:58.29, February 2020). She has won 11 gold medals in U.S. indoor and outdoor championships and two bronze medals (2017, 2019) at the world championships.
She competed five times before the trials, running 1:58.37 last February in Austin, Texas, a time that was her season best before the final of the Olympic trials. She called the first two rounds of the trials “like makeup races,” winning her heats in 2:00.55 and 1:59.49.
Wilson called her last six weeks of training “super great,” and plans to continue in Philadelphia to prepare for Tokyo, focusing on her speed work and her nutrition. She said she may enter one race before the Games.
She said the athletes were briefed at the trials about the International Olympic Committee’s protocols for COVID-19 testing before they leave the United States and once they arrive in Japan.
“I think that the IOC is kind of focused on — and I think my main focus has been as well — to just make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect not only the people in Japan but also ourselves, just to be safe and as healthy as we can,” Wilson said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to have the best of both worlds in competing but also making sure everyone stays safe.”
As for the reduced crowds, made up only of Japanese citizens, she hopes “the energy of the moment” will encourage the fans to cheer and “get us to the last phases of our races.”
Wilson, who lives in West Oak Lane, has delayed her move into her new home in Germantown until after the Olympics, wanting to stay focused on her training. She is excited to join Rogers, whom she knows well, and Mu.
Mu has burst onto the world scene after an incredible freshman year at Texas A&M where she competed in the 400 and 800 and turned pro after last month’s NCAA championships. Her Olympic trials winning mark of 1:56.07 was the second-fastest time all-time by an American at 800 meters, trailing only Wilson.
“Being exceptional and elite not only in one event but also two is super impressive,” Wilson said. “I’d also like to mention the fact that she’s from Jersey — I always represent my home. I think her carefree, kind of running free mentality and attitude is super admirable and reminds me of myself.”