The midday August heat and sunlight were so intense that a flimsy haze rose like smoke from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s six-lane track.
But during a noontime practice session last week, as she glided wraithlike through that shimmering mist, Ajee’ Wilson barely broke a sweat.
“She moves so effortlessly,” said Derek Thompson, the founder of Philadelphia’s Juventus Track Club and Wilson’s longtime coach.
Lately, the smooth-striding 23-year-old Temple graduate has accelerated the pace that first carried her into the 800-meter spotlight when she was a high-schooler in Neptune, N.J.
In February, she broke the 15-year-old U.S. indoor record for the event with a time of 1 minute, 58.27 seconds in winning at New York’s Millrose Games for a fourth consecutive year. She ran her second-fastest time ever — 1:57.78 — in capturing her second straight national title on June 25 in Sacramento, Calif.
Then on July 21 in Monaco, while finishing a close third behind the two African runners who dominate the event, Wilson smashed the 18-year-old American record with a 1:55.61 effort.
“I was training really well and I felt great,” said the soft-spoken Wilson. “It’s nice to be out there competing again and to be getting such encouraging results.”
Wilson, who made it to Rio in 2016 but failed to advance to the Olympic final, was back in Philadelphia last week, preparing to return to Europe for the World Championships in London. There, when 800 competition begins Thursday, she’ll be a leading medal possibility.
“I don’t think she’s reached her full potential yet,” said Thompson, who puts Wilson through two to three hours of work daily at the academy’s Maguire Stadium track.
This would be a good time for that potential to surface.
Race favorite Caster Semenya of South Africa hasn’t been beaten in nearly two years. And Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba has been nearly as consistent. Those two, who took gold and silver, respectively, at Rio, finished in front of Wilson in Monaco in what has been described as one of the great 800s ever run.
The three medalists were virtually even coming out of the final turn before Semenya turned on the jets down the stretch to win in a time of 155.27.
“Both of those other girls are great competitors,” said Thompson, “but Ajee’ won’t hide from them.”
For much of this year, American track observers wondered why Wilson seemed to be hiding. She disappeared from competition during the four months between the Millrose Games and Sacramento, an absence that had the insular track community buzzing with speculation.
Then, four days before the Sacramento event, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that after her Millrose victory she’d tested positive for a banned substance — zeranol. A “legal growth promotant” in beef, zeranol is nonetheless prohibited in athletes.
USADA officials determined it was “highly unlikely” the small trace of the substance it discovered came from anything other than tainted beef Wilson had eaten. After examining her dietary habits and food receipts, they decided not to suspend Wilson, although they did strip her of the indoor record.
“I’d been tested randomly all along and everything was always fine,” she said. “But because I won that night, it’s automatic that I was tested again. When they told me what they’d found, I said I’d never even heard of the stuff.”
She apparently ingested it the night before the New York race when she and Thompson had oxtail at a Jamaican restaurant. Then, the following morning, she consumed the leftovers.
According to USADA, there have been just six positive tests around the world for zeranol since 2003. Skeptics wondered why there had been so few if zeranol, which has a “presumed anabolic effect in humans,” is commonly used in beef production.
Wilson said she’d put the matter — and her taste for oxtail — aside as she readied for London.
I just try to stay focused day to day,” she said. “I try not to think about worlds or anything else, really. It would be great, though, if I could medal there.”
Tuning out distractions has never been a problem for Wilson.
On race days, she typically arrives at the track several hours early, acclimates herself, then finds a shady spot to lie down and sleep.
“She can really sleep deeply,” Thompson said. “Sometimes I worry that I won’t be able to wake her up.”
Wilson trains with another Thompson-coached 800-meter specialist, Charlene Lipsey. A New York-born LSU grad, Lipsey finished second to Wilson at nationals, earning a trip to London.
In between her daily running regimen, Wilson focuses on core work by performing calisthenics or tossing a medicine ball.
“[Ajee’] doesn’t look like much from a physical standpoint, but she’s strong as hell,” Thompson said.
About the only worry Wilson had before boarding a flight to London on Sunday, Thompson said, was how the international track community would view her positive drug test.
“There’s always going to be doubters,” Thompson said. “But we’ve got nothing to hide. Anyone who knows Ajee’ knows she didn’t do anything wrong. It was just one of those crazy things.”