Above: Julian Matthews, Nick Willis and Hamish Carson on the dias after the 2016 New Zealand 3000m Championships in Wellington. Photo by Jo Murray.
Nick Willis is set to make history in Rio as the first Kiwi runner to compete at four successive Olympics. In this story, reproduced courtesy of Run 4 Your Life magazine, STEVE LANDELLS assesses his legacy for New Zealand, Oceania and global athletics.
Like a fine wine, Nick Willis simply gets better with age.
Now aged 33, the Kiwi middle-distance star appears to be at the peak of his powers, running faster and smarter than at any point in his career, which fuels a genuine belief a second Olympic medal could be within his sights.
Seemingly defying the sands of time, Willis has set an avalanche of PBs and national and Oceania records since the beginning of 2014, including a brace of scintillating sub-3:30 1500m times. Within the past 12 months, he has also produced his best ever World Championship performances: a sixth place 1500m finish in Beijing last August, and bronze at the Oregon Convention Centre in Portland in March courtesy of a courageous and electrifying performance.
Such is the Hutt Valley athlete’s current rich vein of form he has talked enthusiastically of competing on until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, when he will be aged 37.
Yet making sense of this long and glorious international career first requires a look back the genesis of that success with Willis’ first coach, Don Dalgliesh.
Having previously coached Willis’ older brother, Steve (also a sub-four-minute miler and now Athletics New Zealand’s endurance coach), Dalgliesh was asked by Nick’s father, Richard, if he could look after the then 14-year-old’s speed work.
During their first session together – 6 x 300m with 3min rest – Dalgliesh asked Willis what time he could complete the distance in, to which the raw teenager replied, “45 seconds”.
“That day, he ran 45, 46, 48, 51 and 54 and never started the sixth one,” recalls Dalgliesh. “It was an immediate insight that training is not about how fast you go but about control and pace judgement.”
Fortunately, Willis was a quick learner. From that point on, there would be few incomplete sessions, and he rapidly developed into one of New Zealand’s premier schoolboy middle-distance athletes.
Dalgliesh knew he would be good, but just how good emerged when, at the age of 17, Willis ran a stunning 4min 1.32sec for a national junior mile record at the Cooks Classic in Wanganui.
“That is when we first realised he was not only good by New Zealand standards but also by world standards,” says his former coach.
Dalgliesh coached Willis up until he left his homeland to study and train at the University of Michigan. Before he departed for the US, the then teenager was already showing the hallmarks of the intelligence and independence that have stood him in good stead for so much of his career.
“He understood what did and didn’t work for him, and my job changed from a coach to a mentor,” says Dalgliesh. “At the beginning of the 2002 season, leading into World Juniors, he had written down his training plan and his race schedule. When we sat down and went through it, I only changed two sessions from what he had originally proposed. He knew what he was doing and where he was going; his plan was to get to the 2006 Commonwealth Games and 2008 Beijing Olympics.”
As it turned out, Willis arrived at the Olympic Games ahead of schedule. In 2004, he registered a time of 3:32.64 in Rome and went on to reach the 1500m semi-finals on his Olympic debut in Athens as a 21-year-old. Two years later, he truly arrived on the international scene by profiting from a trip by home favourite Craig Mottram at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games to clinch 1500m gold.
By this stage, Willis was already starting to inspire other young Kiwi athletes. One of those was Nelson-based Julian Matthews, then a talented 17-year-old middle-distance runner who watched and marvelled at how Willis had defeated Mottram in a titanic tussle in the mile at the Cooks Classic in Wanganui one month before his Commonwealth Games triumph.
“I had obviously heard about Snell, Walker and Halberg, but I wasn’t born during their time, so I couldn’t appreciate it,” says Matthews, a 2014 Commonwealth Games finalist who is now a training partner to Willis. “But to have someone like Nick performing to a high standard gave us the belief that New Zealanders could contend for medals. He was a huge factor as to why I stayed in the sport.”
Eric Speakman, who earlier this year in Wanganui clocked 3min 57sec to become the 39th New Zealander to break the four-minute mile, was similarly inspired by Willis after first meeting him as part of a Young Olympians Camp early in 2007.
Aged 16 at the time, the Napier-based athlete recalls the thrill of first meeting his hero.
“At the time, we were all young athletes, but he took the time to speak to everybody and answer everyone’s questions,” recalls Speakman. “He was awesome and always has been. He’s been a huge inspiration and proves that although we come from a little country, we can fight above our weight on the global scene.”
In 2008, Willis was to restore New Zealand’s rich and proud middle-distance tradition by becoming the first Kiwi since John Walker in 1976 to bank an Olympic 1500m medal. He crossed the line third in Beijing, only to later be upgraded to silver following the doping disqualification of Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi.
Since then, success has continued to flow. Under the guidance of Michigan-based coach Ron Warhurst, Willis snared a Commonwealth Games 1500m bronze in New Delhi. His contribution to New Zealand endurance running cannot be underestimated, but according to Black Singlet convenor of selectors Graham Seatter, Willis’ influence in his homeland extends beyond the pure running scene.
“For so long, Nick and Valerie (Adams) have carried all responsibility for the sport, not just in terms of profile but also funding,” explains Seatter. “Because success brings dollars, and for quite a time Val and Nick were the only two enjoying success, they held that responsibility.”
Willis placed ninth in the London Olympic 1500m final, but since the birth of his first child, Lachlan, in 2013, he has re-emerged a stronger, more motivated athlete. The following year, he set national records in the 1500m and 3000m, dipping 0.09sec below the magic 3:30 mark in the former event during a scintillating run in Monaco. In a world-class Commonwealth Games 1500m final, he then landed a second successive bronze.
Last year, he set two Oceania records for the indoor mile, trimmed a further 0.25sec from his outdoor 1500m mark in Monaco and also enjoyed his best ever performance at a World Championships 1500m, placing sixth. Earlier this year, he collected World Indoor 1500m bronze to add more precious metal to his growing collection.
Seatter believes Willis’ performance in Portland offers further evidence he is currently running better than at any stage of his career.
“In some ways, he has reinvented himself,” explains Seatter, citing Willis’ brave bid for gold in March’s World Indoor Championships as evidence. “Who would have believed he would have tried to win gold from the front? He has changed his training program enough to be refreshed, and he is learning all the time from past experiences. It will be interesting to see how to tackle it in Rio, but I wouldn’t mind betting he’ll solve that conundrum.”
Australian champion and record holder Ryan Gregson has been a long-time admirer of his trans-Tasman rival and believes the Kiwi has many great qualities.
“I’m always amazed at how consistent he is,” says Gregson of Willis. “He never has a bad day these days. I also am impressed by the patience he shows when racing, as he allows himself to conserve energy early to use more at the end.”
Speakman spent a period training with Willis in Wellington at the turn of the year and says the Oceania 1500m record holder has taken it upon himself to mentor and guide the next generation of Kiwi runners, which also includes Matthews and five-time New Zealand 1500m champion Hamish Carson.
Willis has personally taught the Napier Harrier to “pick and choose his hard and easy days” and “listen to his body more.” Yet Speakman insists for all Willis’ many qualities, it should never be forgotten he is a very special talent.
“He has that X-factor, and I sometimes think he doesn’t understand that very few people have his talent level,” says Speakman. “He has an ease about him, and he can do things that other people can’t.”
Gregson, who set the Australian record of 3:31.06 in 2010, believes when Willis finally hangs up his spikes, he will be measured not only by his medals but also by his incredible longevity.
“He has been world class since about 2005, and that’s something that really hasn’t been done by a lot of people,” says Gregson. “It’s a huge feat to have one great season, let alone 12 years at the top of your game.”
With talent, longevity and consistency, Willis appears to be the prototype middle-distance athlete, yet Seatter hopes he can finish the final years of his career with a flourish and earn the true recognition he deserves from a demanding New Zealand public.
“To a large degree, he has carried the sport in New Zealand, but I also think he’s been unfortunate that the status of the sport here does not have the profile it once did,” explains Seatter. “It is a shame that the medals won by Walker, Quax and Dixon have more recognition because of the era in which they were achieved. Yet for Nick to win Olympic silver, three Commonwealth medals and a World Indoor bronze is a phenomenal accomplishment. Hopefully he’s still got some more great things to be done and, when he retires, people will reflect on a great career, irrespective of what happens from this point on. I’m sure he isn’t done yet.”
Willis’ impact on the sport is perhaps best summed up by Matthews, who believes his legacy extends far beyond New Zealand’s shores.
“He’s opened the door to athletes across the world because he has proved that clean non-Africans can compete,” says Matthews. “It is not only New Zealanders who find that inspiring but people across the world.
“At the recent World Indoor Championships, many of the Americans were supporting Nick over their own – that’s the kind of impact he’s made.”
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