Inside Lane: Ajee’ Wilson Heads Into Worlds as the 800m Favorite
Ajee' Wilson, the 2019 USA and Diamond League champion, takes on the tough subjects of Caster Semenya and drug testing, plus discusses her training and racing strategies.
The women’s 800 meters has spiraled into an event larger than itself—larger, even, than track and field. The world at large has followed Caster Semenya’s journey from multiple-time Olympic and world champion to currently facing a ban from the sport (specifically, the 800m and 1500m) for refusing to lower her natural testosterone levels. With Semenya out of contention, it’s an American, Ajee’ Wilson who looks poised to take the crown at the IAAF World Championships this month in Doha, Qatar.
Wilson refuses, however, to frame her own success in the context of Semenya’s absence. The 25-year-old is a seasoned veteran of the circuit herself as the 2019 IAAF Diamond League champion and 2017 IAAF World Championships bronze medalist for 800m. She’s won 10 USATF titles, owns three American records, plus two world indoor silver medals. Her career thus far—no matter what happens in Doha—ranks her at the top among middle-distance athletes in U.S. history. Wilson also exemplifies the gold standard for how to go pro straight out of high school.
We caught up with Wilson over the phone from Philadelphia, where she’s currently training with coach Derek Thompson and fellow world qualifier Raevyn Rogers, a few days before she flies to Doha.
Do you feel like the favorite for worlds?
Going into worlds, I think that’s what the predictions have said—that I’m the favorite. Anytime I go into a major competition, I’m not thinking about how I’m coming in ranked. Ever since I was a kid, my mom always said, ‘anything can happen on any given day.’ You can’t take anything for granted so I’m just ready to perform and do well.
How does Caster Semenya’s absence change the dynamic of the race?
Whenever she was in it, you can’t lead. I’ve had to lead more this season. That’s been the main difference, getting used to that. Translating that style of race into international races. I wasn’t really a frontrunner early on in my career, but my domestic experience has made it not too much of a huge difference.
Racing with her over the past few years has pushed me to a level that I don’t think I would have reached by myself. I’ve tapped into this other potential having her to reach for. I know I have to be in 1:55, 1:56 shape.
Are you happy not to race her?
It’s a funny question. With any competition, I would never use ‘happy’ to describe competing or racing. It’s competitive, so it’s not like there’s anybody on the line, who, ‘oh, I’m glad you’re here today to race.’ I’m here to race.
Do you think she should be allowed to race?
I’ve always said that I don’t think anyone should be banned completely from competing and that’s just the stance I’ve taken on it. The specifics of the science and all that stuff, I don’t know. Whoever is on the line, that’s who I’ll focus on.
Christian Coleman was in the news a lot this summer for missing three drug tests in the past year. Does the whereabouts system take up a lot of your life as an athlete and do you think it’s easy to miss a test?
[Coleman was ultimately cleared of doping violations due to filing errors, but professional track athletes are essentially required to submit their location or “whereabouts” at all times to anti-doping authorities so they are always available for random drug testing.]
I would say that it’s something that we’re responsible 24/7, so it’s a big part of our lives to say or remember to say where we are when we’re there. I’m just glad it worked out for him, to be honest.
You had your own run-in with anti-doping authorities after eating contaminated beef. Is that something you think about often, and do you try to avoid eating beef when you go to a track meet?
[Wilson’s American indoor record was invalidated in 2017 after she tested positive for zeranol, which was later ruled to be in her system due to eating contaminated beef.]
I don’t eat beef at all. It’s not something, specifically, that I think about, but definitely, I think it’s becoming more and more of a thing. Sometimes, we don’t don’t know what’s in our food. We know it’s not good for people but we don’t always know the extent. That’s always in the back of my head, the ‘what if?’
Ever since you had your positive test, you stopped eating beef?
Will you have a different strategy at worlds from how you ran in the Diamond League final?
Thats a good question, I don’t know. I think running rounds and running one straight race are two different things, so we’ll see what my coach thinks.
How important is it to conserve energy through the rounds?
I can’t say that that’s a specific goal. How we train is with having to run hard three races in a row. While we prefer, the easier you can make it through, the better, I wouldn’t say it’s something we obsess over. Or, if it’s a harder race, to be sad about it.
I know, with my training, I can handle hard rounds. It depends on the race and it depends on what my coach tells me. Sometimes, don’t fight for a lead, just qualify, hit the big Q, but more often than not, it’s better to go for one spot out, depending on who’s in your heat.
What’s your training been like between winning the Diamond League and now?
I’m kind of blanking on the first couple days. We usually take a day off when we get back. We did maybe a run the next day and then got back into regular training schedule: Twice a week on the track for a quality workout, then runs and light lifting in between those days. [We went] pretty much right back to normal because we had worlds right around the corner.
What kind of workouts have you done?
It’s been a range, two weeks have gone by so slow. Today we did 400s, last week we did 200s. We don’t know what we have until after we warm up. I like [that] because I know some people get their plans for the week and I wouldn’t want to know, ‘okay, on Friday, this is the exact way I’m gonna get tortured.’ I like [getting the workout] right before because you don’t have that much time to lament about it, it’s easier for me to be like, ‘okay, that’s what we have,’ and not really think about how I’m gonna feel.
Does that help you stay flexible and make decisions during races?
I think it might just help me be a little more level-headed when unexpected things happen in races. Sometimes you’ll get out super hard, or somebody will surge at a random moment, so from practice I just have a mindset of whatever has to be done, you just have to get it done. This is what you’ve got, now what are you gonna do about it? Being able to respond and not let whatever happens get to you mentally,
What’s the toughest workout you did this summer?
Probably 4 x 1 mile… I didn’t finish it. I don’t remember [the splits], I really don’t. I wasn’t feeling well. I think we ended up doing it sometime later as well and I finished it and it wasn’t good—we started out hot and then by the end, I was like, ‘I just need to finish.’ The first one was too fast, maybe 5:15, and I don’t remember [the rest time] but by the third one, I was like, ‘I need more air!’
How has the addition of Raevyn Rogers to your training group affected the dynamic, or you as an athlete and as a person?
Aww, Rae Rae, I’ve never been asked that before. Let me see. Ms. Rogers. It’s hard to be specific. I would say, one of the things I love most about our group is all of our personalities mesh really well together and it ends up being a really encouraging space. You hear horror stories about some people who don’t really get along and there’s friction. The most we have are debates, with a hypothetical situation online and we say it during our warmup. Raevyn’s perspective is always different, I definitely enjoy having how she processes workouts, races, everything.
What are some of your go-to tips or best practices for traveling internationally?
For me, personally, always travel with a blanket, because it gets cold. Compression socks. If you can, try to sleep the whole flight or most of the flight—which can be difficult if they have good movies. When I get there, if I’m tired, I’ll take a nap or something but not over two hours. Only once or twice, I’ve ever been like, ‘man, I did something wrong.’ I just listen to my body and go from there.
How has your relationship with Coach Derek Thompson changed over the years?
My first trip to worlds, he didn’t go, we just checked in on the phone, talked on the phone a lot. Both of our confidence in me has changed our relationship a lot. My first worlds, my goal was just to make the final, and when I did, we were super proud in that moment. Now, working together going into this world champs, we’re going for a medal. Our goals have changed and over the years, his expectations have gotten higher and that’s pushed me to be a stronger athlete.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.