Ajee’ Wilson runs two laps around the track faster than any woman in America ever has.
She can finish 800 meters in 1:55.61, which is the standing national record. So when she placed third at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar, initially, the result didn’t match her expectations.
Ranked No. 1 in the world, she was heavily favored to win. She had won six of the eight outdoor competitions leading up to that race, including her 10th U.S. title and four prestigious Diamond League races. After leading most of the first 600 meters, Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi surged past Wilson in the final straightaway, along with Wilson’s then-training partner Raevyn Rogers.
Wilson took bronze, Rogers silver, and Nakaayi, who had never raced a world championships final before, won the gold.
“It was super disappointing,” Wilson says. “But yeah, it happened. I had to quickly pivot to asking myself, ‘What are you going to do to figure it out and get back to where you need to be?’”
That’s the thing about resilient people: they don’t dwell long. They acknowledge discouragement, but then do something about it. Mental health experts say that they quickly look for the lessons in challenging situations and use them to fuel the next success. And that’s always been Wilson’s way, says Derek Thompson, her long-time coach at Juventus Track Club.
“In her career, we’ve only had a couple bumps in the road so far. One was in Doha,” he says. “You don’t see her moping about what happened. She’s one of the coolest customers you’ll ever want to meet. It’s another day at the office.”
Wilson, who turns 27 in May, went pro after graduating from high school instead of competing in the NCAA. She was a teen star from Neptune, New Jersey, who had a shot at making her first world championships team in 2013. With the help of her parents, she decided to attend nearby Temple University in Philadelphia and continue training independently with Thompson.
The decision—never easy for young, gifted female athletes who are still developing physically and emotionally—was the right call. Wilson made that 2013 team and finished fifth in Moscow, setting a new world junior record, 1:58.21. A contract with Adidas followed and Wilson never looked back, though the transition to the world stage wasn’t easy.
“Up until that point, running was always just something fun. It was a hobby. I think sometimes people are surprised to hear that,” Wilson says. “It was something I enjoyed doing with my friends. To have to go from that to, like, this is your job? The stakes were higher. It was difficult.”
As hard as that time was for Wilson, she says, “it could have been a lot worse,” but for the people with whom she surrounded herself. Another trait of the resilient? Connecting with those you find trustworthy and empathetic.
“I credit Derek. He navigated that time, knowing when to push but also being patient and understanding that all that change was big for me,” Wilson says. “If I didn’t have that support from him, my family, and teammates…a lot of people just helped make my life easier, finding the balance of what I was doing on the track but helping me feel normal and have a social aspect of my life.”
We can all look back on moments in our lives that were especially traumatic or stressful. Nobody escapes challenges. And between a pandemic, natural disasters, unemployment, and racial injustices, the past year and a half has put us all through the ringer, in various ways.
But it has also amplified what we already have learned as runners: Resilience is the process of adapting in the face of adversity and bouncing back—whether that means finishing a marathon or weathering a breakup or grieving the loss of a loved one. Or, sometimes, just making it through a rough day.
“It’s the ability to manage and recover and move forward,” says Rachel Gersten, a licensed therapist and avid runner in New York. “When something comes at you or hits you or stops you in your tracks, you figure out how you can manage it. A lot of people think resilience means that you don’t let things bother you—like you shrug and move on. No. It’s when you find a way to work through it.”
For Wilson, after the 2019 world championships, the next great hope for a gold medal wasn’t supposed to be far off. But then the coronavirus hit, and by March, her shot at redemption was on hold. The Tokyo Games had been postponed until July 2021.
Her Philadelphia-based training group took three weeks off from practices. They stayed connected with Zoom strength training sessions and ran individually. Some decided to prepare for a summer outdoor track season, in case opportunities to compete came up. But Wilson declined.
“At the time, the idea of getting on a plane and having to be out and about was still pretty scary to me,” she says. “I think now we’ve learned a lot more about how to stay safe and protect each other.”
But it all provoked a deeper look at the grander scheme. “It has been a crazy year from every different possible angle. It required me and a lot of us to just have to rethink our lives, rethink what my output is in the world, to my family, to friends, to my community. It’s made it a little bit clearer, like what really is important,” Wilson says.
COVID-19 was disproportionately killing Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Several examples of police brutality and white supremacy came to the forefront. The Black Lives Matter movement reignited. And Wilson took inventory of how she contributes outside of her pro running career.
“It’s always been underlying, how I’ve navigated life, but I think the importance of equity has really just been magnified. We’ve all seen on the most basic level how differently people are treated in America, specifically Black people and people of color,” she says. “I’ve always tried to give my time and service to the populations that I connect to and the ones that need it, but it’s reminded me of how important it is to be super purposeful about how I do it.”
For the past two years, Wilson has volunteered at the nonprofit Sankofa Healing Studio, which serves marginalized youth and adults experiencing trauma associated with incarceration. She also helps out at Lingelbach Elementary School in the East Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, supporting fundraisers and other activities that create new educational experiences for the students.
Wilson is quick to acknowledge how devastating COVID-19 has been for so many people around the world, but part of the way she has coped with the repercussions has also allowed her to grow.
“I think it’s the whole idea of a silver lining, the idea that good things can come out of bad things,” she says. “You don’t relish that something bad has happened, but you can appreciate that something positive can come from the current climate.”
The debate will rage on forever, but many runners will argue that the 800 meters is the most difficult event on the track. It takes equal measures of speed and endurance and a mastery of race tactics. It’s a completely different kind of resiliency that athletes use over the course of two minutes (or, hopefully, less).
Wilson trains the physical, but also tinkers with how she mentally attacks a competition. After the first 300 meters, she resets and convinces herself that the race has just started—that those first 300 meters never happened.
“It’s a blank slate and where the work starts,” she says. “In my head, it’s me just starting the race again. I tell myself, ‘You’re OK. You’re comfortable. You’re fine.’ When the second lap starts, you tap into the idea that you’ve been here before, you’re prepared for it, and it’s like the last reps in workouts or training.”
The last 50 meters? Those are often the most nerve-wracking to watch. Clichéd but true: the hammer is definitely dropped. “It’s either, ‘Hey, don’t blow this,’ or ‘Oh, you’re so close,’” Wilson says. “We’re not even considering how we actually feel at that point.”
Wilson has taken to the event since her earliest days of running, as an 8-year-old. And her mother, Tonya Anderson, has probably watched more 800-meter races than the average citizen. Summer vacations soon revolved around national age-group meets. Coaches and officials would tell Anderson that Wilson was going to be an Olympian, but the family always kept it light, despite their daughter’s obvious talent. Wilson’s dad, Zachary Wilson, hid “training” into roller-blading and bicycling adventures. “When it becomes work, kids don’t want to do it anymore,” Anderson says. “When we’d go to the regionals and other trips, we’d have music on in the car. We’d sing. We’d go swimming. You know, you can’t put so much pressure on the kids.”
By high school, Wilson wanted a puppy so badly she wouldn’t let up. One weekend during sophomore year, she ran 2:07. Anderson finally said that if Wilson finished the next race in 2:04, she could get a dog. Dropping three seconds in one week seemed like a safe bet for a mom who didn’t especially want to invite a pooch into the house.
“I’m looking at the clock the last 100 meters and she’s all by herself. And then she gets down to the wire—she had already won the race—and I hear the announcer say her time is 2:04.9,” Anderson says. “So we had to get a dog. One week. Three seconds. Come on. We still have him. He’s a Shih Tzu/Yorkie mix and his name is Zeus.”
Even in those early days, Anderson says the mantra was “nice and relaxed.” They repeated that to Wilson all the time. “It makes for an easier race if you don’t stress yourself out. If you’re too rigid you’re just out there fighting yourself,” Anderson says.
Wilson has taken the advice to new levels in her pro career. Thompson feels like he needs to keep a close eye on her in the hour before a race—her ritual is to nap and he’s often scared she’ll sleep through the competition. It doesn’t matter if she’s surrounded by the buzz of 100 other anxious athletes, she’ll just shut her eyes and take a snooze. Pre-race nerves? If she has them, you’d never know.
“She’s so cool and calm she’ll go to sleep on you. I have to be around to wake her up at a certain time,” he says. “She sits down and the next thing you know, she’s snoring. Nothing bothers her—if you’re trying to rattle her, you’re wasting your time.”
Resilience is a muscle, mental health experts say. And building it takes time and training—just like improving running performance. It’s based on four components, according to the American Psychological Association: connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning.
By nature of her job, Wilson has wellness covered. She’s found meaning and connection on and off the track. The mental game? That’s what she’s developed over time, to get through the challenges like disappointing performances, injuries, and distractions (in 2017 Wilson tripped a positive drug test after consuming a trace amount of anabolic agent through tainted meat—she was at no fault, did not serve a ban, but it was nonetheless a stressful situation to deal with publicly).
“I’ve had spurts of doubts in challenging times,” Wilson says. “I’ve had a lot of practice being tough and also figuring out what I need to do or what I need to tap into to get myself through. The beginning of my career was like zero to 100 in terms of training and mindset—a crash course in how to cope and get everything to work together to be successful.”
The first step? Acknowledging that a circumstance is difficult. Then Wilson remembers times she’s been able to bounce back. And so far, she’s always mounted a comeback. That gives her peace and confidence.
In fact, Wilson’s ability to stay even-keeled in the face of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows leads her to sometimes be the one consoling her coach, instead of the other way around. “Sometimes she’s the one comforting me and telling me that it’s OK,” Thompson says, laughing.
“I think what works so well [in the coach-athlete relationship] is that Ajee’ never takes success and puts it so high and she doesn’t put failure so low,” Thompson continues. “If you’re around her, you’d never know she’s a world-class athlete. She’s a very laid-back person. To be honest, what you see on television, that’s the real person. She’s just a special human being.”
Anderson agrees, to an extent. What she wishes more people saw in her daughter is Wilson’s sense of humor and smile.
“I say this all the time, that she should let people see that other side,” Anderson says. “But the people who are closer to her and who get to be around her, they know. What you see on the track is all business. But she has a really fun side, too.”
She’s also the unofficial “team mom” because she’s been coached by Thompson the longest. Wilson’s always ready to help somebody having a rough workout. She’s been there, too.
“I will say, ‘OK, it looks like you’re struggling. I think this will be helpful,’” she says. “I just think about the experiences that I’ve had or what I needed to hear when I was in that position.”
Like all top athletes, Wilson is hopeful that the 2021 Tokyo Games will go on. But she’s not fixated on it—she’s not about to focus on something she can’t control. One thing that is for sure, though, is that she’s come a long way since the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she placed third in the semifinal round and didn’t advance to the final.
Wilson’s training has evolved and she’s stronger because of it, she says. A week typically includes two longer runs (10-13 miles), two workout days that usually include a session on a 500-meter loop with hills, and another speed workout on the track (think: 400-meter repeats and other up-tempo, but not full-out, sessions). The group also has weight circuits, core work, and med-ball exercise routines to do each week.
Will she ever stray from the 800 meters? Probably, but likely not this year. “She has the ability to run the 1500 meters,” Thompson says. “If the schedule at the Olympic Trials was appropriate, we’d double. She will run three or four 1500-meter races this season, though.”
Wilson and the rest of the Juventus Track Club train as if the Olympics are a sure thing. “Some days or periods are more challenging than others, but we still just have to get the work done and just see what happens,” Wilson says.
Thompson says they rarely talk about it—speculation is a waste of time. “We don’t have control over it, so why worry about it? Why waste negative energy? If it doesn’t happen, we’ll be fine.”
And if that isn’t the perfect display of resilience, what is? “Being fit and ready is not something I worry about,” Wilson says. “If I make the team and we go to Tokyo, hopefully I’ll come back with the medal. Preferably gold. That’s the ultimate hope. That’s the ultimate dream.”