For an athlete who’s been leaving most of her rivals for dead this season, it’s somehow fitting that Ajee' Wilson’s first running memories were of jogging through the local graveyard...
Back then, the graveyard was situated close to her home in Monmouth County, New Jersey and was en route to her local track. Wilson is keen to point out “We were not stepping on anybody and I was running on a path where the cars drove down.”
It was those slightly unusual jogs as a youngster that set in motion a passion for athletics, which has not only seen her dominate through the age groups, but this season star as one of the world’s leading two-lap runners.
Aged just 20, the future looks rosy for Wilson, whose first name is pronounced “ah-jhay”.
Born into an athletic family in New Jersey – her father, Zachary Snr, ran track and played college football and her mum, Tonya, competed in the 400m hurdles, 800m and the high jump – perhaps it was inevitable she gravitated towards the sport.
A good soccer player as a youngster, track quickly became her main focus, her competitive side honed by annual match ups with her mum.
“I used to race my mum every year,” admits Wilson, who started competitive athletics aged nine.
“It was huge to beat my mum for the first time. I can't remember when I first beat her, but after I did she stopped racing me,” she adds with a laugh.
A stand out high school athlete and aged just 16 she was called up into the US team for the 2010 World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, which proved a pivotal moment in her athletic development.
Wilson representing the Stars and Stripes as a junior
“It was the first time I realised I should take track more seriously,” she admits. “[Up until then] I would train, but I would rely on my talent for the most part.
“For me track was more of a social thing and to be with my friends. If they were running slow in training, I was running slowly, too.”
Travelling outside of the US for the first time in her life she performed with distinction competing against athletes up to three years older. She finished fifth in the 800m final in a personal best of 2:04.18.
“I was happy to say I was fifth best in the world,” she recalls.
In early 2011 it was recommended to the then high school student that she should be coached by Derek Thompson, a former Jamaican football international based out of Temple University in Philadelphia. The pair instantly clicked and formed a solid and successful coach-athlete relationship since.
“He understands me and knows how to keep me relaxed,” she explains. “He is just great all around.”
In 2011 at the World Youth Championships in Lille, she triumphed in the 800m in a PB of 2:02.64 – all despite turning an ankle messing about playing football with her sister, Brietta, a month before the competition. Twelve months later she further cemented her status as a star in the making by winning the world junior title in Barcelona in another PB of 2:00.91.
On top of the world! Wilson took her first global title in 2011
Soon she swapped collegiate athletics to turn pro while attending Temple University in Philadelphia, but she initially found the adjustment to the pro ranks demanding.
“Mentally, I had to get used to the feeling that I belonged here,” she says of the 2013 campaign. “When I first started racing [with the seniors] I got really intimidated about running too fast around the first corner or over the first 200m, so I held back.”
That soon changed. Last year she took the US senior indoor title, finished third at US outdoors - where she dipped below the magic 2-minute-barrier for the first time, and claimed top three finishes at the Eugene and London Diamond League meets.
Then at the Moscow World Championships she smashed out the quickest 800m of her life – 1:58.21 a US and North American junior record – to place sixth with Kenya’s Eunice Sum taking the title in 1:57.38.
“I was really happy with last season,” says Wilson. “We went into it with the goal of making the World Championship final. I made that goal, so I knew whatever I did [in the final] was just the icing on the cake.”
Aim achieved - Wilson celebrates making the final in Moscow
Yet Wilson wanted more – and that despite classing taking a nap and playing the card game Phase 10 as her favourite pastimes besides track. In the winter, the kinesiology student stepped up her training to include shorter recoveries during sessions. Her long runs were tackled with a greater intensity.
“How I would take on an eight or nine mile run a year ago is very different to how I do it now,” explains the athlete, who trains with two male athletes to act as further motivation.
The year started positively. She claimed victory at the historic Millrose Games before defending her US indoor title in Albuquerque. The only blemish in her records being the world indoors in Sopot, where trumpeted as a potential gold medallist, she failed to make it out of her heat, finishing fourth.
She ran too conservatively in Poland, yet quickly shrugged off the disappointment. “It didn’t take too long to get over it. Life goes on. I knew there was more races to come.”
Those more races have come and Wilson is flying. Top three spots at Rome and Oslo Diamond Leagues as well as 4x800m gold at World Relays preceded her victory at the US outdoor championships in Sacramento just over a week ago – a race she won in 1:58.70 – the second fastest time of her life.
Still aged only 20, she stands on the cusp of a great career. Her aims for 2014?
“I want to do well, compete and float around the track.”