Halimah Nakaayi of Uganda Stuns Ajee’ Wilson, Raevyn Rogers Gets Silver – Doha Women’s 800m Recap

By LetsRun.com
September 29, 2019

DOHA, Qatar —  Chaos has returned to the women’s 800 meters. After four years of dominance — first by South Africa’s Caster Semenya from 2016 to 2019, then by America’s Ajee’ Wilson for most of this season — the event was turned on its head tonight in the biggest upset of the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships so far.

Though Wilson entered the race heavily favored to earn America’s first World Championship gold in this event, she didn’t cross the line first. Neither did her training partner, Raevyn Rogers. Instead, it was the unheralded Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi (we forgive you if the name doesn’t ring a bell) who stunned both of them to win the world title in a national record of 1:58.04. It was still an impressive race for the Americans, as Rogers used a huge close to nab the silver in 1:58.18 and Wilson, who led with 100m to go, held on for the bronze in 1:58.84. This was the first time in 23 races that Rogers had beaten Wilson.

Halimah Nakaayi goes by Ajee’ Wilson for gold (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for IAAF)

It was the 800 at its chaotic best.

Nakaayi will go down as one of the most unpredictable world champions in history. Though she did show some promise by running a national record of 1:58.39 last year, prior to 2019 she had never qualified for a world or Olympic final or even run in a Diamond League race. She entered Worlds with a season’s best of just 1:59.57 — 22nd on the 2019 world list — and middling results in her two most recent races: 8th in the Birmingham Diamond League on August 18 and 3rd in the African Games on August 27.

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Yet Nakaayi looked like a totally different runner in Doha, as she ran a season’s best of 1:59.35 to win her semifinal before stunning Wilson by powering away to gold over the final 100m tonight.

For the Americans, this was a night of conflicting emotions. Rogers was overjoyed to take silver in her first global outdoor final, and two medals in one event is a huge accomplishment for one country, let alone one training group. But Wilson was frustrated with bronze, the same medal she earned two years ago behind Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba. With those two women banned from competing due to the IAAF’s new hyperandrogenism regulations, 2019 looked to be the year that Wilson, who claimed World Indoor silver in 2016 and 2018 as well, would finally ascend to the top of the podium. Instead, that dream will have to wait at least one more year.

The Race

Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers

Wilson, as she has in every race this year that didn’t feature Semenya, went to the lead early, hitting 200 in 26.94 and 400 in a measured 57.96, very close to the 57.85 she came through in at the US champs in Des Moines two months ago. Natoya Goule, the last non-XY DSD woman to beat Goule, was on her shoulder (technically, Goule was ahead of Wilson at the bell, but she never gained the inside lane) with Nakaayi third. Rogers was seventh.

Down the back straight is where the race got interesting. Wilson has won races this year by controlling them from the front, and she fully intended to do the same in the biggest race of the year. Goule, however, was determined to not let that happen, and she pushed for the lead at the top of the backstraight. Wilson responded with a strong move of her own to maintain the lead as Nakaayi moved past Goule on the inside (legally) to grab second just before 200 to go (1:28.14 for WIlson).

Nakaayi moved onto Wilson’s shoulder on the final turn, and midway down the home straight, she did what no one else could do this year – pass Wilson. Wilson had no response.

And what was this? Raevyn Rogers, was absolutely flying down lane 4. Rogers conjured memories of her epic close to deliver the NCAA triple crown for the University of Oregonn two years ago by going from 7th with 100 to go to 2nd at the finish, just running out of room to catch Nakaayi before the line. She covered her final 200 in 28.73 seconds, and her final 100 in 13.86, nearly a full second faster than anyone else (Nakaayi was next-fastest at 14.73).

Race video, results and full analysis appear below.

1 Halimah NAKAAYI UGA 1:58.04 NR
2 Raevyn ROGERS USA 1:58.18 SB
3 Ajee WILSON USA 1:58.84
4 Winnie NANYONDO UGA 1:59.18
5 Eunice Jepkoech SUM KEN 1:59.71
6 Natoya GOULE JAM 2:00.11
7 Rababe ARAFI MAR 2:00.48
8 Ce’Aira BROWN USA 2:02.97

Quick Take: This upset never would have happened without the IAAF’s new hyperandrogenism rules

Tonight’s final showed the difference between Caster Semenya and Ajee’ Wilson, and why the IAAF fought so hard to institute its hyperandrogenism policy. Over the last two years, Wilson had just one loss over 800 meters to a non-XY DSD woman heading into Worlds. Semenya, meanwhile, had zero losses to any woman from 2016-2019. Wilson was nearly unbeatable; Semenya was unbeatable.

The difference is enormous. When Semenya was in a race, her massive biological advantages meant the rest of the field didn’t have much of a chance. Had she been in this field, she would have gapped Wilson and everyone else at some point on the second lap and won easily. With Semenya gone, Wilson was a heavy favorite, but the possibility of an upset was still there — which has always been the appeal of the 800 meters, where races can be determined by split-second tactical decisions made at high speed.

With Semenya in the race, the outcome was predetermined. Without her, we got one of the most exciting races of the World Championships.

When asked about the absence of the DSD women, Nakaayi said, “We respect them. They are our friends, but it created a lot of opportunities for us.” Well said.

Quick Take: A glorious race for two different training groups

Training partners Raevyn Rogers and Ajee’ Wilson went 2-3, delivering two medals back to Philadelphia and coach Derek Thompson. You may have known that.

But did you know that Halimah Nakaayi and 4th placer Winnie Nanyondo are also training partners?

Pretty wild that two sets of training partners went 1-4 and 2-3. Which is better: a gold medal and fourth, or silver and bronze?

Quick Take: Out of nowhere, Uganda is an 800 power

Team Uganda

We’re pretty sure Ajee’ Wilson would not have been able to tell you who Halimah Nakaayi was before these championships began. When asked if she had raced  Nakaayi before, Wilson said, “I don’t think so. I’ve definitely raced Winnie before.” Wilson said her coach Derek Thompson had Nakaayi on his radar of people to watch as the championships went on.

Nakaayi and Wilson had actually raced each other three times before today and the closest they ever were was the first time they raced, in the 2016 Olympic semifinals. Neither made the final as Wilson finished .88 ahead of Nakaayi. They also raced twice this year and Wilson was nearly 2 seconds ahead of Nakaayi in Monaco and then just a little over a month ago was 2.64 seconds ahead of Nakaayi in Birmingham.

Now however, Nakaayi is the world champion. She ran like she belonged at these championships and afterwards said she was not surprised she triumphed, saying, “I expected it.”

Now, before you say that is Nakaayi just expressing false confidence, her training partner and friend, 4th placer Winnie Nanyondo, said that she and Nakaayi practiced the winning dance they did after the race.

Until Worlds, Nakaayi who sported a PR of 1:58.39 before Monday’s final, had only broken 2:00 six times in her life. Nanyondo was seen as more of a medal threat heading into Worlds.

But Nakaayi and Nanyondo were in this together competing not only for their country, but their tribe in central Uganda. They’ve been friends for 12 years, and are so tight they even shared a bed earlier this week when Nakaayi said she was afraid to sleep one night. They made some changes in their training this year and Nakaayi said, “You can see the results.”

While Nakaayi got the gold, Nanyondo was able to relish in it and say it was life-changing as this was a team medal of sorts, “I know this medal is going to change our life. We are hard-working women. We are very happy. It’s going to change the life of our family, our people.”

Quick Take: One key change made the difference for Raevyn Rogers tonight

Rogers ran at the very first Diamond League meet this season on May 3, held in this same stadium in Doha. Rogers made her move coming off the final turn in that race, at which point she was in third place, but she faded over the final 50m and was passed by two people — one of whom was Wilson — to finish 5th.

Rogers remembered that race, and specifically that the straightaways are very long in Khalifa Stadium. This time, she resolved not to make her move until midway down the final straight — she estimated she shifted into top gear with around 70 meters to go — and it paid off big time as she went from 7th to 2nd.

Quick Take: Ajee’ Wilson ran the right race; she just needed to be better on the night

Wilson used the same tactics in tonight’s final that have produced victory after victory during the regular season, and with 200 to go, few would have bet against her winning again tonight. Her first lap, 57.96, was right where it should have been. and though she did go hard on the back straight to hold off Goule, she has done that in past races and still prevailed.

But in the World Championship final, even a stud like Wilson has to be at her best (or very close to it) to earn the win, and Wilson was not. She had run 1:57.7 in victories in Monaco and at USAs, and had she done that tonight, she likely would have won. But whether due to the long season or the three rounds in four days, Wilson couldn’t do that in Doha. That allowed Nakaayi and Rogers, who both ran great races, to sneak ahead of her. One thin that may have hurt her was her first 200 was too fast. 57.96 is great but her first 200 was 26.94 meaning her 2nd was 31.02. That’s not an efficient way to run 57.96 at all.

Afterwards, Wilson made no excuses and said, “I just didn’t have anything the last part of the race.” She didn’t question her tactics, but said it was all too fresh and she’d have to watch the tape with her coach.

While Wilson was disappointed with bronze and got beat by Rogers for the first time, she was able to express some pride that her training partner got a silver medal at the World Championship. Her disappointment was with the fact her own medal was bronze not gold.

Quick Take: Natoya Goule says Nakaayi should never have been in the final

Nakaayi was a bit lucky to even be in the final as she shoved Goule to create room for herself to move in the semifinal on Saturday.

Goule said that she tried to initiate a protest against Nakaayi after the semis and wanted to do so after the final as well (Goule said she was also fouled in the final, though Nakaayi’s pass tonight looked clean). But both results stood. Goule was right in that Nakaayi technically committed a foul in the semis but we after the Jakob Ingebrigtsen decision, we were glad she wasn’t DQd. Everyone who was impacted by the foul made the final anyway so why DQ someone if there is no material advantage.

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