By Christopher Hunt
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Her teammates gathered around with a large piece of paper and a sly grin. She sat surrounded by reporters, dazed and still a bit confused at what just happened until she turned to recognize them.
“Can we have your autograph,” Ajee Wilson’s Shore AC (N.J.) teammates asked in unison.”
It was that kind of day for her. It was the kind of day when the baton transforms a great sophomore runner into a superhuman athlete, who turns in a performance so good it’s almost laughable. Wilson brought her team back from fourth and stunned everyone with a 2:00.59 anchor leg 800-meter split to win the 1,600 sprint medley at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals Friday in 3:52.74. Yazmin Hall, Ann-Marie Buckley, Brietta Wilson and Ajee Wilson clocked the fourth-fastest time in United States history. (Photo by MaroonNews)
The race unfolding perfectly for her. Columbia (N.J.) had opened a huge lead early and it only increased after its anchor, Brittney Jackson, bolted through a 58-second first lap. When the pace handcuffed Jackson’s legs and a chase pack that included Sparta TC and Harvard-Westake TC, Wilson latched on, tracked down both teams and with 200 meters left shocked everyone when she reeled in an ailing Jackson.
With back-to-back 60-second laps, Wilson was the first in a day of outrageous relay splits at the national championships.
“I was just trying to get the pack in front of me,” Wilson said. “Then around 200 meters left I saw her dying and I thought I could catch her.”
Wilson had no idea she was producing one of the best relay legs in scholastic history.
“I wanted to run that time as a senior,” the sophomore said.
The time was fast enough that when reporters asked how much faster she could run, she couldn’t commit to lowering her time, knowing that a sub-2-minute 800, even on a relay, sounded too fantastic to mention out loud.
“I hope I can run the same time,” she said.
It wasn’t just Wilson though. Hamden (Conn.) senior Chris FitzSimons dug his team from sixth-place with a 1:47.15 anchor leg to earn an upset win over Warwick Valley (N.Y.) in the 4x800. Nick Soba, Isiah Whiting, Patrick Cyr and FitzSimons won in a nation-leading 7:35.68. Warwick Valley earned second for the second straight year, finishing in 7:35.86 as FitzSimons edged anchor Tim Luthin in the final meters.
Almost as surprising as FitzSimons’ anchor split was the fact that his teammates expected that he would win the race for them. (Photo by John Olson)
“When he got the baton I knew he was going to do it,” Whiting said. “He’s done it before. We knew he would run something ridiculous. We figured he’d run 1:48-1:47.”
FitzSimons said he was thinking about the win as soon as he took the baton, even if he was five seconds behind the leader.
“Once I caught him, I knew the last 100 meters was just going to come down to heart” FitzSimons said.
Charlie Armand, Warwick’s leadoff leg, said: “We’re just tired of these silver medals. But he ran a 1:47, there’s nothing you can do with that.”
Liverpool, expected to contend for the title, finished sixth, despite sophomore Zavon Watkins’ 1:47.99 anchor leg.
It came down to the anchors in the girls 4x800 as well. Stotan Racing (Fayetteville-Manilus, NY) set a meet record in 8:46.98, US #2 all-time with Hannah Luber (2:17.04), Katie Sischo (2:11.48), Mackenzie Carter (2:10.39) and Molly Malone (2:08.08). Garden City finished second with Michelle Rotondo (2:11.52), Katie O’Neill (2:14.96), Emma Gallagher (2:12.70) and Emily Menges (2:08.74).
The end of the race mirrored the New York State meet last week with Menges and Malone taking the batons together on the anchor. Again Menges led but this time Malone waited until the last 100 to make her move, Menges pushed to hold her off but Malone squeaked by in the last 10 meters. (Photo by John Olson)
“My coach told me that whoever kicked last was going to win,” Malone said. “At states I tried to go a little earlier. This time I waited until the last 100.”
Menges said: “I just couldn’t go any faster.”
Even before the relays stole the spotlight, the boys and girls 2-mile both produced historic performances. As expected Megan Goethals and Cornwall (N.Y.) junior Aisling Cuffe turned the girls run into a match race. The two raced shoulder-to-shoulder throughout until Goethals went ahead on the bell lap. Cuffe challenged on the backstretch but Goethals gained a few steps advantage to win in 10:01.16, missing the national record by .08. Cuffe finished second in a junior class national record of 10:02.49.
“I’m kind of disappointed because I really wanted to break 10,” said the University of Washington-bound Goethals. “It’s a little bit of a letdown.”
Goethals said she felt Cuffe itching to make a move and hope to hold the pace long enough to outkick Cuffe. In fact, she looked over her shoulder twice on the bell lap, looking to see if Cuffe had enough.
“I just had a feeling she was going to blow past me,” she said. “Like it would be payback for the times I had done that to other people.”
But Cuffe was just as immersed in the pace as Goethals, hoping that her newly-developed closing speed might be enough to take down Goethals this time but just as focused on breaking the 10-minutes barrier.
“I just wish my best could have been two seconds faster,” Cuffe said. “For a minute, it wasn’t really about the win. It was more about how hard we could push each other because we both wanted to break 10.” (Photo by John Olson)
Lukas Verzbicas of Orland Hills, Ill., blasted through a 4:17.77 first mile, chasing the national record. But the pace, coupled with his mile race at the Adidas Grand Prix last week, crushed him in the last half mile. Joe Rosa saw Verzbicas laboring and saw an opportunity. He turned over his shoulder to his twin brother, Jim, with two laps left.
“We got this,” Joe yelled to his brother. “Let’s go.”’
The twins blitzed Verzbicas with two laps left. Jim edged ahead with 650 left which ignited Joe to switch gears again as the brothers dropped the field. Joe Rosa, the storied distance runner from West Windsor-Plainsboro North (N.J.) won in 8:44.06, a junior class national record. Jim finished second in 8:51.46. Verzbicas dropped to fifth in 8:58.66.
“After about 2K it didn’t feel good anymore,” Verzbicas said, admitting he was chasing the national record of 8:34.40 set by German Fernandez two years ago. “They were great. They ran a smart race. Obviously I didn’t.”
The Rosa’s have been known to work together in cross country but haven’t made a practice of tag-teamming races on the track. But when Joe called out to his brother, they knew they could make something happen.
“I was just thinking, Oh my god, he must be feeling good if he can turn around and say something to me,” Jim said. “I just wanted to help him make the move. I knew that if I went that we could work together and he would go even faster.” (Photo by John Olson)
Jim even remembered a race they ran in middle school, when a local runner had beat them both before.
“Our coach told us that if one of us passes him that the other one needs to pass him like three seconds later,” Jim said. “It’s just so demoralizing.”
Reach Christopher Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.