By Jonathan Gault
June 20, 2017
On Monday, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that Ajee Wilson, a 2016 Olympian and four-time U.S. Indoor champion, tested positive for the anabolic agent zeranol after setting the American indoor record in the 800 meters at the Millrose Games in New York on February 11. After concluding that it was “highly unlikely that the presence of zeranol in Wilson’s sample resulted from a source other than zeranol contaminated meat,” USADA ruled that Wilson will not face a ban, but the 1:58.27 she ran in New York will not be ratified as the new American record.
The news brought an end to one of the spring’s biggest mysteries: where has Ajee Wilson been? Wilson had not raced since winning the U.S. indoor title at 600 meters on March 5, and though Wilson’s teammate Charlene Lipsey told LetsRun.com on June 2 that Wilson underwent surgery this spring, she didn’t tell the whole story. Wilson did undergo surgery to remove a cyst in April that caused her to miss a couple of weeks of training, but that was not the primary reason why she has not competed this spring.
“USADA made it clear that we could not race until we settle[d] the issue,” said Wilson’s coach Derek Thompson. “She missed World Relays or another race or two. But they said until the matter was cleared up, they said we couldn’t race and we [weren’t] going to take that chance.”
After receiving news of the positive test in March, Thompson was shocked. “I didn’t have a clue what zeranol is and she didn’t have a clue what zeranol is [before the positive test], but hopefully it’s over with and we can move forward,” Thompson said.
Wilson’s lawyer reached out to Dr. Helmut Zarbl, a toxicology expert at Rutgers University. After quizzing Wilson on her meals before the race, Thompson said that Zarbl determined that the zeranol likely stemmed from some oxtails Wilson ate at a Jamaican restaurant the night before her race. Thompson said that Wilson also had some leftover oxtails for lunch on the day of her race.
Zeranol, which is used as a growth promotant in beef cattle, is legal in the U.S. but banned in the European Union.
LetsRun.com reached out to Zarbl for comment but as of Tuesday afternoon, he had not responded.
Thompson said that the spring has been “stressful to the highest max” for him and his star athlete.
“I just don’t know how much it took out of Ajee from a stress level and how much she’s gonna feel. Will people look at her cross-eyed? You’re always gonna have people with their doubts, and that’s their right. But we’re not gonna use that as an excuse,” said Thompson.
“We don’t have anything to hide. It’s just an unfortunate situation that Ajee went through. And I know the young lady and I would tell anyone that’s willing to listen that she didn’t do anything to wrong. It’s just one of those things, you stand on the corner and get struck by lightning.”
With the zeranol case behind them, Wilson and Thompson are looking forward to the 800 at the USATF Outdoor Championships, which begin on Thursday in Sacramento. Wilson won her only U.S. outdoor title the last time USAs were in Sacramento, in 2014, and the 23-year-old has qualified for every U.S. team — two indoors, three outdoors — since turning pro out of high school in 2012.
“We’re coming to win,” Thompson said. “My thing is, I know it’s been very stressful on her, but if we can get over that hump, our chance of winning is just as great as anybody else. She’s training well.”
Apart from overcoming the stress of the spring, Thompson’s only other concern is whether Wilson will be able to navigate three races in four days after not racing at all since March. But he believes her fitness is there.
One of Wilson’s primary rivals for a berth on the U.S. World Championship team is training partner Charlene Lipsey. The 25-year-old Lipsey has enjoyed a breakout year after joining Thompson after the 2016 season, and ran 1:58.64 behind Wilson in Millrose. With Wilson’s time off the books, Lipsey’s 1:58.64 would stand to become the new American record, but Thompson said that Lipsey was not drug-tested at Millrose, which, as Emma Coburn will tell you, means that her time can’t count as an American record either. That means that Nicole Teter‘s 1:58.71 will remain the American record.
Still, Lipsey gets to count that 1:58.64 as her personal best, and with Wilson’s result invalidated, it is the fastest time by an American in 2017. Lipsey, the U.S. 1000 champion indoors, has continued to roll this spring, setting outdoor PRs in five of her six her individual races in addition to anchoring the U.S. to gold in the 4×800 at the World Relays. She enters USAs riding a four-race win streak and appears capable of much more than her 1:59.57 season’s best given she has mostly won by running patiently before making a hard move with 100 meters to go. Thompson believes that she’s capable of running 1:57 in a fast Diamond League race.
“For whatever reason, how can I put it, it’s like she’s not 100% confident in herself yet,” Thompson said. “It’s like she’s trying to relearn how to race. And she find a comfort zone where she just sit there, sit there, sit there and explode. And it’s been working for her so I haven’t tried to change her.”
Thompson believes that approach will benefit Lipsey down the road as he would like her to move up to the 1500 next year.
“I think she can run at least 4:03 or 4:02. I definitely think [the 1500] is going to be her best event. And with the speed she has, she can afford to sit in third or fourth and kick.”
And though the extra miles and strength work Thompson has foisted upon Lipsey this year will benefit her as a 1500 runner, he believes it has also served to address Lipsey’s biggest weakness as a runner: her inability to navigate the rounds at championship events. She was eliminated in the semis at USAs in 2015 and 2016.
“That was the first discussion we had when she first came,” Thompson said. “When you have an athlete, you figure four years of high school, four years of college, two years of pro, so 10 years total, and ask her to do a workout that looks like a 5,000 workout, they have a right to cross-examine you, you know? ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we doing 5×1200?'”
But Lipsey saw immediate results indoors, PRing in all six meets, and has not doubted her coach since. Now comes the biggest test: making her first World Championship team. With Brenda Martinez and Raevyn Rogers both running well this spring, it will be difficult for both Wilson and Lipsey to make the team. But after a nightmare spring for Wilson, maybe it’s time for a dream ending.
Talk about Wilson’s positive test on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Ajee Wilson loses her indoor 800 American record as the US beef supply contains a banned substance –