By Jonathan Gault
September 6, 2019
Ajee’ Wilson cemented her status as the favorite for World Championship gold in Doha with a dominant win in tonight’s Diamond League 800-meter final at the Memorial Van Damme in Brussels. Until last week, no American, male or female, had ever won a DL 800 title. Now, thanks to Donavan Brazier’s win in Zurich and Wilson’s victory tonight, Americans hold both of those crowns.
Wilson’s historic win — her third DL victory of the 2019 season — was just one part of a great night for the Americans. Raevyn Rogers used a huge close to go from sixth to second over the final 100 meters — her best finish in a DL event — and give coach Derek Thompson a sweep of the top two places. And because DL champs earn a bye to Worlds, the US now gets an extra spot in Doha, which will go to Ce’Aira Brown.
Wilson followed her usual game plan to win tonight: she got to the lead on the first lap (the pacer came through in 57.18, with Wilson roughly three meters back) and controlled the race from there, pulling away over the final 200 to win comfortably in the end in 2:00.24. The real battle was for second place. Coming off the final turn, Jamaica’s Natoya Goule held that position with Great Britain’s Lynsey Sharp just starting to fade on her inside. On their outside, Uganda’s Winnie Nanyondo was charging hard and by midway down the home straight, she was three meters clear of third place before Rogers came on like a freight train in lane 3 to grab second in 2:00.67. The third American in the race, Hanna Green, coming off a win in Paris two weeks ago, was never a factor tonight and finished 7th.
400m – 57.5 sec
Quick Take: How does anyone stop Ajee’ Wilson at Worlds?
Wilson has been one of the most consistent performers in any event over the past four years, but her brilliance has gone largely unappreciated because of the suspension of the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism guidelines in 2015, which cleared the way for XY DSD women like Caster Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba to dominate the women’s 800.
Now that the IAAF has changed its rules and Semenya and Niyonsaba are out of the picture, Wilson has been unbeatable. Her consistency has been staggering: she has been the top non-XY DSD finisher in 41 of her last 42 races (counting heats) dating back to 2016.
Wilson, never one to seek attention, downplayed her chances when asked if she was the favorite for Worlds.
“I don’t know,” Wilson said. “I just keep my head down and I keep working hard. I don’t take anything for granted, but this victory gives me a lot of confidence.”
She won’t say it, but make no mistake: she is the woman to beat in Doha.
Everyone knows Wilson’s game plan. She likes to get to the lead by the bell and then outlast you on the second lap. And so far, no one has been able to solve it.
Not that they haven’t tried. Lynsey Sharp got out hard tonight and had inside position on the turn from 200-300m, forcing Wilson to run extra distance on her outside. But Wilson finally seized the lead on the home straight of the first lap, and no one would pass her the rest of the way.
What Sharp did tonight illustrates the problem with racing Wilson. She went out hard to try to throw a wrench into Wilson’s plan, but couldn’t get there, and after a quick first lap, Sharp had nothing left for the final 100 and faded to sixth. Wilson, meanwhile, looked no worse for wear for having to fight off Sharp for the lead as she was clearly the best over the final 150.
The fact is, track & field is not like football, where an inferior team can spring an upset with a brilliant strategy. If there’s someone who is clearly better than everyone else, like Wilson is right now in the 800, no amount of tactical brilliance will enable you to beat them. You have to hope they make a mistake. And so far in 2019, Wilson hasn’t made one.
Quick Take: Could America go 1-2-3 at Worlds?
Six years ago in Moscow, USA earned two medals in this event, with Brenda Martinez taking silver and Alysia Montano bronze (originally they were 3rd and 4th but were elevated after Mariya Savinova was DQ’d for doping).
In Doha, the US could do them one better: a 1-2-3 sweep is on the table. Wilson, clearly, is the favorite for gold. Rogers was second tonight. Green had a poor race tonight, but has otherwise been outstanding in 2019. Among women running the 800 at Worlds, the three Americans currently rank #1, #3, and #5.
2019 world list, women’s 800
1. 1:54.98, Caster Semenya, South Africa — cannot compete at Worlds
2. 1:57.72, Ajee’ Wilson, USA
3. 1:57.75, Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi — cannot compete at Worlds
4. 1:57.90, Natoya Goule, Jamaica
5. 1:58.19, Hanna Green, USA
6. 1:58.42, Laura Muir, Great Britain — only running 1500
7. 1:58.61, Lynsey Sharp, Great Britain
8. 1:58.65, Raevyn Rogers, USA
The US also gets one more crack at the podium now that Ce’Aira Brown is on the team. If Brown were in her 2018 form — she finished 3rd at USAs and ran a pb of 1:58.01 — she might have a chance. But she has battled a heel injury this year and has yet to crack 2:01 all season. Just making the final would be a major accomplishment for Brown.
Quick Take: Big night for Derek Thompson
Thompson is doing a fabulous job coaching his 800m group, but doesn’t get some of the credit that other coaches get, perhaps because his runners run for different shoe companies. Going 1-2 in the Diamond League final should get him some attention.