Fast Footsteps. Ajee' Wilson is chasing the legacy of fellow Jersey girl Joetta Clark-Diggs.


Fast Footsteps. Ajee' Wilson is chasing the legacy of fellow Jersey girl Joetta Clark-Diggs.


Ajee' Wilson has won three New Jersey state championships, but the highlight of her career is undoubtedly her record-breaking 800 meter performance this summer at the World Youth Championships in Lille, France. Wilson ran a 2:02.64 to win gold and break a 32-year-old New Jersey record. Wilson finished third in the girls mile at last year's Millrose Games with a time of 4:52.45. This season she clocked a US #1 1:30.36 for 600 meters (#9 all-time), her first attempt in the distance, and 2:48.31 for 1000 meters (#10 all-time).

Joetta Clark-Digg is considered one of the greatest and most prolific 800 meter runners of all time. Over the span of her thirty-year career, she won seven Millrose Games 800 meter titles, twelve national championships, and four NCAA championships. A four-time Olympian, Clark-Diggs has personal bests of 1:57.84 (800m), 2:37.51 (1000m) and 4:25.89 (1500m). She was inducted into the USATF Hall of Fame in 2009.


By Geoff Decker

Two summers ago, two of New Jersey’s greatest track stars were in the same room for an event that had nothing to do with running.

The event was the New Jersey Orator’s annual gala, and organizers invited Joetta Clark-Diggs, a four-time Olympian and USATF Hall of Famer, to deliver the keynote speech. Clark-Diggs retired from the sport more than a decade earlier, but was now a successful motivational speaker and businesswoman.

Wilson at 2011 Millrose Girls' Mile - photo by Don Rich

Somewhere in the audience that day was Ajee’ Wilson, the Garden State’s budding runner who was already drawing comparisons to Clark. Wilson, a whip smart senior at Neptune's Academy of Allied Health and Science, had spent a short stint with the Orators honing her public speaking skills and had returned to hear what Clark-Diggs had to say.

“She said, ‘I don’t know how much time I have left,’” recalled Tonya Wilson, Ajee’s mother, referring to Clark-Diggs’ long-standing 800 meter state record. “She mentioned that someone was tapping at the door.”

That ‘someone’ was Ajee’ (pronounced ah-jhay) and in the two years since that day, Wilson not only eclipsed Clark-Diggs’ 800 meter record, running 2:02.64 en route to winning gold at the World Youth Championships, she has begun to build her own legend.

On Saturday, the roles will be reversed. Wilson will line up under the Madison Square Garden at the inaugural U.S. Open in the women’s 800 meters. In the audience will be Clark-Diggs, waiting to see what Wilson has to say.

“I guess if I were a kid, I’d be upset,” Clark–Diggs said this week of losing her record. “Now I got my AARP card. Records are meant to be broken.”

For Wilson, Saturday’s race will be the first time in her distinguished track career that she will be lined up against a professional.

Ethiopian Fantu Magiso Manedo – and her 1:59.17 800 meter time – is perhaps the stiffest competition Wilson has faced. But she says that won’t be on her mind when the gun goes off.

“When I compete,” Wilson said this week, “I don’t think like that.”

“I don’t worry about who’s in the race and what they’ve accomplished,” she added.


Ajee’s talent bore itself at an early age, Tonya said. “It didn’t matter what sport she played, she excelled in it.”

Even in a family of athletes – both her parents were college athletes and her older sister, Jade, runs track at Temple – Ajee’ emerged. As a sophomore, Ajee’ pulled off a double win in the New Jersey Meet of Champs, including a national-best 4.43.92 in the 1600 meters. Since then, the Florida St.-bound senior has continued to dominate her sport.

For Wilson, a soft-spoken, but confident and thoughtful teen, her ascent through the ranks of New Jersey running advanced in the shadow of Clark-Diggs' legend, who 33 years earlier was just as dominant.

“Everyone knows who Joetta Clark is,” Wilson said, referring to her pre-married surname. “Ever since I was little, I always heard her name and the things that she did.”

Comparisons between the two are inescapable.

Photo by Derrick Peynado    

Both are African-American distance runners who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs (Wilson grew up in Monmouth County; Clark, whose father was Joe Clark, the famed inner city principal who had a movie made about him, went to school in Maplewood).
“People will mention it to me a lot,” Wilson said of the comparisons.

Asked whether she believes she can achieve what Clark-Diggs achieved in her career, which included 11 national championships and bronze medals in two world championships, Wilson said it was hard to think about.

“It was something that didn’t seem possible back then because of her amazing career,” said Wilson, who wants to study physical therapy. “She’s an Olympian. I never thought I’d be running the same times as her.”

On Saturday, the pair were back in the same room, but this time it was entirely related to running. Wilson was receiving her USATF Track & Field female athlete of the year award and Clark-Diggs was there to introduce her.

I asked Clark-Diggs whether she thinks Wilson can match her own career accolades.

“The next test will be college,” Clark-Diggs said. “But she will continue to run well on the next level.”
She added: “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”