by Dante Zappala
We’ve gone 6 years without a championship in Philadelphia. Before that, it had been 25. My most formative years as a sports fan lies right in between that abyss of success. I haven’t been to therapy yet but when I get there, I think this is where we’ll find the root causes of my shortcomings. My parents can be spared the blame.
Last week, the most recent drought ended. Philadelphia, and specifically Northwest Philadelphia, has a new champion. We can all celebrate.
The United States Track and Field Outdoor Championships took place in Sacramento recently. You may have heard one of the story lines coming out of the Women’s 800-meter run. Alysia Montaño, the defending champion, showed up on the starting line of her first round heat to compete. She was 34 weeks pregnant.
She ran a very impressive time of 2:32 (that’s less than 5:10 pace for the mile, folks!) but was nowhere near qualifying for the next round, as the best times are right around two minutes even. Much unneeded controversy erupted over her choice to run at that stage of her pregnancy. But the prevailing narrative was the right one – by and large, it’s okay to exercise when you are pregnant. Just make sure you are consulting all the right people first.
What happened after the first round of the Women’s 800 went mostly unnoticed, yet it turned out to be a major event for our local sports scene. Ajee’ Wilson, who lives and trains right here in our area, came away with the victory.
And this was against some very steep competition. Just to put this in perspective, the United States women recently won the 4×800 at the World Relay Championships. This group is the best in the world and here they were, competing against each other.
Born and raised in Neptune, N.J., Ajee’ runs in Northwest Philadelphia. Her coach, Derek Thompson, has lived in the area for many years, working with countless young runners. After winning the World Junior Championship two years ago, Ajee’ made a bold decision to forgo a scholarship and take her shot as a professional athlete. That decision has been validated time and time again, with impressive showings on the world stage last year and now her first outdoor national title.
Ajee’ ran so fluidly and so confidently throughout, you’d be hard pressed to believe she is only 20 years old. Her race strategy was masterful. Her performance could be described as a majestic butt kicking.
A lot of local people who know and follow Ajee’ were screaming at their TV sets as she powered down the homestretch in that race. She had shaken all but one runner in the field. Ever composed in these situations, Ajee’ stayed relaxed and separated at the end, winning the race convincingly.
My kids and I were on that list of faithful fanatics glued to our sets. We’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her over the past year. For a short time in my teenage years, I was one of those young runners in Coach Thompson’s stable. He felt that with my distance background, Ajee’ and I could do some workouts together that would benefit her aerobic base as she continues to grow and develop as a runner.
As enjoyable as that sounds, it’s never actually fun. We link up a few times a month for gut wrenching long track intervals. Needless to say, if I show up for practice, Ajee’ is not happy to see me. I try to stay optimistic but underneath it all, the feeling is mutual.
But hard practices are about the only time you won’t see her smiling. Not even 24 hours after returning home from Sacramento, Ajee’ came up to cheer on her training partners who were competing at the Germantown Academy all-comers track meet. She received a well-deserved acknowledgement from the race organizers and stuck around late in the evening to talk to a plethora of inspired teenagers.
Ajee’ has quickly become a fixture in the local running scene. You might see her tearing around the track at SCH or on a tempo run down in Valley Green. Although she gave up the scholarship, she is taking a full class load at Temple. As much as she is becoming a presence on the world stage, she’s already very much a part of our community.
So, if you’re out for a run and feel an unexpected breeze, it could be Ajee’ gliding by. All you have to do is look for gold.
Web extra: See Ajee’ winning the national championship: www.usatf.tv/gprofile.php?mgroup_id=45365&do=videos&video_id=120690