BY ELLIOTT DENMAN
"It's been crazy," Ajee' Wilson tells you, by way of telephone interview.
Which isn't exactly late-breaking news.
Then again, when you are the Number One-ranked athlete in the world in a prime event on the program of the "flagship sport of the Olympic Games,"
a very good guess is that the last year has been a whole lot crazier for you than it's been for so many of your contemporaries.
At 26 - she'll be 27 on May 8, 2021 - the stellar speedster from Neptune, New Jersey, a Temple University graduate who now lives and trains in Philadelphia, is already the owner of 11
USA Track and Field national championship gold medals, holds both versions of the American record for the 800-meter distance (1:55.61 outdoors, 1:58.29 indoors), and a young veteran of both the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and five editions of the World Championships, And, too, she ran off with the top spot in the most recent complete edition - 2019 - of the Diamond League circuit of high-stakes global invitational meets.
That's already a career dossier that already puts her right up there with the best of the best in American track annals.
Nevertheless, she hasn't competed in nearly a year and can't really tell you "where I am" heading into the New Balance Grand Prix meet at Staten Island's Ocean Breeze complex, on Saturday, Feb. 13. Her 2021 debut will thus be more than interesting as the track and field world - and her legions of fans everywhere - catch up on her exploits and she catches up with her own sport.
Her most recent competitive outing was at the USATF Indoor Nationals, Feb. 15, 2020, in Albuquerque, N.M. Of course, she won it. In 2:01.98, and at altitude. It came a week after she'd won at New York's Millrose Games, in 1:58.29, an American record, which held up as number two world time of the indoor season, back only of Great Briton Jemma Reekie's 1:57.9, and the top USA women's time all of Covid-racked 2020, indoors or outdoors. She'd opened her 2020 season with a 2:02.37 win Jan. 25 at the New York Armory's Dr. Sander Invitational.
Before that, her last prior major outing was her third-place finish at the 17th edition of the World Outdoor Championships, Sept. 30, 2019, at Khalifa International Stadium, Doha, Qatar.
So that adds up to just three major competitions in a year and just four in nearly 16 months. What can the track and field world expect?
Wilson can't really tell you - other than saying "I'm pretty healthy, I've been training well, not bad at all (with her training group partners and coach Derek Thompson, almost always outdoors in Phiily, no matter the weather.)
"I don't have any issues, no nicks, no nacks."
Yes, there were "some nicks, some nacks" for a brief stretch last summer but they're long gone now and she's more than anxious to get back into real racing.
She's grateful, too, that, even through this brutal stretch of overlapping universal economic slowdown, and the devastations of the pandemic, the adidas co, has stayed with her and lent the ongoing support appropriate to a world-class athlete.
After the Staten Island start, she hopes - tentatively - to run The Texas Qualifer, a brand new outdoor meet in the Austin area - exact location undisclosed - on Feb. 26-27 designed to help Tokyo Olympic hopefuls post qualifying marks.. Focusing on events from the 800 up to 10,000 meters for men and women, the meet will be USATF-sanctioned, spectator-free and fully observant of Covid protocols.
"Hopefully" - a word almost all the global elite uses regularly these challenging days - the meet will evolve into a major stepping stone on the way to Japan in July.
Of course/of course/of course, it's still "The Big One" - the Olympic Games - that awaits her most definitive performance,
Like every global Games candidate, she has no firm idea if the Tokyo Olympics (now booked for July,23- Aug. 8, 2021 after the Covid-19 cancellation of 2020) will actually transpire as scheduled. And if so, in what form? As a strictly-for-TV extravaganza? As a spectator-free production? In a who-knows-what format?
"I'm just hopeful," said Wilson. "Whatever they (the leadership of Japan and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, the moguls of the International Olympic Committee, TV's major media magnates, international health organizations, et al) decide, that's fine with me. " What more could an athlete do, anyway?
"It's obviously a bigger call than any of us can make."
With emphasis on that single word - "obviously."
Rio 2016 wasn't what she'd hoped it would be. After running a sterling second place in that March's World Indoor Championships, that wasn't "the real Ajee" her legions of fans
saw bowing out in the semifinals of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad six months later in Brazil.
But the 2019 outdoor campaign saw Wilson rising to the top of the world elite - with firsts in Kingston, Jamaica (1:59.22) and USA Nationals in Des Moines (1:57.72), the Herculis Monaco Meet (1:57.73) as well as the Diamond League finale in Brussels (a strategic 2:00.24.) (All this as 2012-16 Olympic 800 champion Caster Semenya was seeing her own hopes of a "three-peat" at the two-lap distance ruled out by a Swiss court, which determined that the cisgender South African woman, born with XY chromosomes, had naturally elevated testosterone levels which created unfair physical advantages.)
The World Championships 800 final in Doha 2019 didn't go to plan.
As the official IAAF report told it, "from the gun, Wilson ran with purpose to take the lead at the break and control the race....
"Through the final turn, (Uganda's Halimah) Nakaayi worked her way up to Wilson's shoulder, shadowed by (Uganda teammate Wiinnie) Nanyondo.
"The diminutive Nakaayi executed the classic pass off the turn. Wilson had no answer.
"(USA teammate Raevyn) Rogers was sprinting down lane four, passing Nanyondo, passing Wilson, and getting to within a meter of Nakaayi before the finish."
"Very disappointing," third-placer Wilson admitted afterward. "But a lesson learned, too."
Yes, there's always somebody coming up on you in this sport. Never/ever are there givens. Press clippings get you nowhere.
But always to be remembered - every starting gun answered represents a whole new chapter. It's no wonder Ajee' Wilson's can't wait for the 13th of February, 2021, to roll around.
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