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By David Monti
(c) 2009 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

Life is good for Anna Willard, and it looks like it could get even better.

Under the coaching of Terrence Mahon, The 25 year-old athlete, who finished tenth at in the Beijing Olympic steeplechase last summer, has risen quickly to become America's most versatile middle distance runner.  Her accomplishments just this year read more like the accumulated work of a ten-year career: USA indoor 1500m champion; winner of the Reebok Grand Prix and Areva Paris Golden League 800m races; second and third, respectively, in the USA Outdoor Championships at the steeplechase and the 1500m; and personal bests of 1:58.80 for 800m and 4:01.44 for 1500m.  She even won the inaugural B.A.A. Mile on the streets of Boston the day before the Boston Marathon.

But Willard, who will marry steeplechaser Jonathan Pierce in September, surprised more than a few fans when she chose to run only the 1500m at the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Berlin.  Her top-3 finishes at the USA Outdoor Championships last June in both the steeplechase and the 1500m guaranteed her selection for both events, and many thought she would turn to the steeple where she was already an established global player with a 9:22.76 career best.

"It was a tough decision," Willard explained to Race Results Weekly in an e-mail message.  "I have had the majority of my professional success in the steeple but have been working so much this year on my 800 and 1500 fitness.  I am very excited about the 1500 right now and think I have a shot to do very well at worlds."  She added: "(In) the steeple I didn't feel as confident in my ability to place top-3."

Moonlighting in the 800m, Willard has demonstrated great racing savvy and closing speed.  At the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City last June, Willard rolled over a solid field of two-lap specialists, notching her first ever sub-2:00 race in 1:59.29.  Six weeks later, she did the same thing at the F Golden League meeting in Paris, passing most of the field in the last 100m, her flawless stride carrying her to a convincing win over Italian star Elisa Cusma Piccione.

"We had already made the decision to focus on the 15 before I ran the 800 in Paris, but that P.R. really solidified my confidence in our decision," said Willard.  "The 800 has been really fun for me this year, and not necessarily just as an indicator for the 1500 potential. I really enjoy tapping into my speed and I am definitely looking to run faster in the 800 post-WC's."

Willard had flirted with doubling in Berlin, but a key workout just one week after the USA Outdoor Championships convinced her to put the steeple aside for the rest of this season.

"We decided after a workout the week after USA's when I ran a 24.5 in a 200," Willard recalled.  "I felt so excited about my speed that it almost felt like a waste to run the steeple.  Since that day, I haven't looked back once.  I am very happy with my decision to focus on the 1500."

Willard's decision to abdicate her team berth in the steeple meant that Beijing Olympian Lindsey Anderson would be named to the team.  Anderson had finished fourth in the USA national meet and already had the IAAF World Championships "A" standard of 9:40.00 in her pocket.  Willard chose to alert Anderson early on so she could be prepared to race in Berlin.

"I thought she deserved to know," said Willard.  "I knew I had until the end of July to decide, but felt that I should expedite my decision so that both Lindsey, or Erin Donohue, had the same opportunity to plan their season."

Donohue, another Beijing Olympian, finished fourth in the 1500m at the national meet and would have made the team had Willard chosen the steeplechase, instead.  At the time, Donohue recognized that Willard had earned the right to pick the event which was best for her.

"It's up to her," said Donohue.  "Whoever was the fastest should get to represent the U.S.  If she's feeling up to it, she should do it."

  *   *   *   *   *

Only two American woman have medaled in the 1500m at the IAAF World Championships.  In the inaugural contest in 1983 in Helsinki, Mary Decker won the gold medal.  Regina Jacobs won the silver medal in both Athens in 1997 and Sevilla in 1999, but was later convicted of a doping violation.  In the last contest in Osaka in 2007, no American women made it to the final. (LetsRun.com edit: Mary Decker also was later convicted of a doping offense.)


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