ROAD TO RIO | Temple's Ajee Wilson uses her moment of zen for victory
Rather, she lays down. And naps.
The habit, said coach Derek Thompson, “scares me to death.”
Wilson gets to the track a couple hours before race time. She checks in, then finds a quiet corner somewhere and checks out.
“You have to stand over her,” Thompson said. “You have to make sure you wake her up.”
Don’t think Wilson’s low-key behavior and relative inexperience at track’s highest level (“I think a lot of people forget that — I’m only in my fourth year,” she said) means she lacks a competitive fire. It just burns in a low, steady flame in one of track’s trickiest and toughest races – the 800 meters.
The event demands speed, endurance and poise in a two-lap race that often features jostling and sharp elbows.
“You make one mistake and you’re done,” Thompson said.
Wilson, 22, won silver in the 2016 World Indoor Championships in March (though many Olympic medal favorites did not compete) and is considered the frontrunner for the 800 at U.S. Olympic Trials, set for July 1-10 in Eugene, Ore. To make the Olympic team for Rio, Wilson needs to place in the top three in the July 4 finals.
She was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 6 in the world last year and is a three-time 800-meter national champion (two indoor, one outdoor).
Wilson leads a deep group of U.S. women, including Brenda Martinez, 28; Laura Roesler, 24; Molly Ludlow, 28, and Alysia Montano, 30, who hope to end a long Olympic medal drought and a lack of international success in the 800. Kim Gallagher won Olympic medals in 1984 (silver) and 1988 (bronze), but it wasn’t until 2013 that Martinez won bronze in the outdoor world championship.
In 2014, Wilson posted a personal best of one minute, 57.67 seconds. That would have put her fourth at the 2012 Games, just .08 from bronze medal. Her best recent time was a 1:57.87 in Eugene in May 2015.
She has failed to break two minutes this year, but Thompson said they have been emphasizing endurance work over speed. You have to make the Olympic team first and the trials consist of three rounds, he said.
Wilson is a long way from four years ago, when she finished eighth at the 2012 Olympic trials, just a few weeks after her high school graduation. She said she didn’t feel like she belonged in the big leagues. She got bumped in the last 250 meters of a semifinal heat, and that was that.
“It threw me off,” she said. “I didn’t think I was ready. I was kind of just like, `That would have been nice,’” to make the Olympic team.
Wilson, who took gold at the World Junior Championships in 2012, had an offer to run for Florida State, but chose to stay close to home, turn pro and work with Thompson of the Philadelphia-based Juventus Track Club.
They began to work together in 2011, when she was a high school junior in New Jersey. Thompson coached from a distance until she graduated and moved in with him and his wife in Philly.
Wilson’s mom, Tonya, was a high jumper and hurdler in college. Wilson’s dad, Zachary Sr., played college football and ran track. Tonya said Thompson, who also coaches Marielle Hall, an Olympic team candidate in the 10-kilometer race, has been “a true blessing.”
The pair “just fits,” she said. “He’s great for Ajee. They have a good rapport. They get along well … He can relate to her a lot. He watches what’s going on, he talks to the athletes, he educates them. He knows about sports and life.”
Wilson is turning in world-class times in addition to being a full-time student at Temple University. Academics has always been important. After graduating from a magnet high school for students aspiring to medical careers near her Neptune, N.J. home, she took community college classes before Temple. One of her sponsors, Adidas, pays her tuition, she said.
Wilson said she trains three or four hours a day and usually spends the same amount of time on homework. Her training, she told Nick Zaccardi of NBC Olympic Sports, is old-school: Her Philadelphia club runs outdoors year-round, in rain and snow.
A recent promotional video by Wilson’s new sponsor, Kellogg’s, shows Wilson and Thompson eating breakfast (natch), then Wilson heading out the door for her morning run, with neighbors waving as she passes. Thompson, a postal carrier, leaves to make his rounds. Afternoon training happens at the club’s track after Wilson’s classes and Thompson’s shift. She’s on track to graduate this fall.
As a youngster, Wilson starred in club soccer, where practices included conditioning runs. Whoever got back first got a lollipop. Wilson switched full-time to track at 11 or 12, but didn’t take it seriously.
“In high school, I wasn’t the most dedicated runner,” she said. “I was lazy sometimes and relied a lot on my competitive nature. I wouldn’t say I cut corners. I just didn’t work as hard.”
Thompson helped change that, and Wilson took off.
“I’m training way harder and actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” Wilson said.
Wilson has become a more confident and versatile runner, comfortable running from the back, middle or front, Thompson said.
In a sport dotted by divas and the high-strung, Wilson maintains an even keel. Thompson said he has never seen her raise her voice or get angry.
“Not too much ups and downs with Ajee,” he said. “She runs a bad race and in five minutes she’s back to normal.”
That personality trait helps on the track. While vying for the lead with 200 meters to go in last year’s U.S. nationals, she got clipped and lost her right shoe. She kept running and managed to finish third, qualifying for outdoor worlds in Beijing. (She did not compete due to a stress injury.)
For Wilson, it’s steady as she goes — hopefully, to Rio and beyond.
“I have levels of goals,” she said. “First, make the team, top three. Then after that, make the finals, then after that, try to win a medal.”
UCF’s Dalhausser back in the Games
Phil Dalhausser, a UCF alum, clinched a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic beach volleyball team with partner Nick Lucena, of Davie, Fla., in style when they won the final qualification tournament Sunday in Hamburg, Germany.
The veteran Dalhausser, 36, of Ormand Beach, Fla., is considered one of the sport’s best players, winning 2008 Olympic gold with Todd Rogers. Dalhausser and Lucena, making his first trip to the Games, will be the No. 3 seeds in Rio when the Olympics are held Aug. 5-21.
The pair started the season with different partners, teaming up in mid-season. But after winning silver in their first FIVB tournament in Aug. 2015, they gelled quickly, winning six tournaments and finishing second in three, becoming the top-ranked U.S. men’s team in late May.
Others named to the U.S. beach volleyball team are: April Ross and Kerri Walsh Jennings; Lauren Fendrick and Brook Sweat; and Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson.
Wilson, True, D’Agostino running in Boston Friday
Wilson, along with Dartmouth alums Ben True and Abbey D’Agostino, will get a tuneup for the Olympic trials when they are expected to compete Friday in the adidas Boost Boston Games.
Largely a sponsor event, the competition features downtown venues for pole vault, long jump and hurdles, along with an unusual “street race,” where sprinters will run on a raised, straight track in a Boston neighborhood Saturday.
The longer-distance runners compete in an invitational field on a conventional track. Wilson, the world indoor silver medalist will run the 800 meter race. True, the top-ranked U.S. road 5K runner, and D’Agostino, a seven-time NCAA champion, will compete in the 5,000 meters.
Above: Ajee Wilson competes in the 2016 IAAF world indoor championships in the 800 meters. She won the silver medal. (Courtesy USA Track & Field)