Nick Willis Moving On After Olympic Disappointment

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By David Monti
(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
April 13, 2013

BOSTON  — When Nick Willis left the track at London’s Olympic Stadium last August he was beyond crestfallen.  The silver medalist at 1500m in Beijing four years before couldn’t believe he had finished a distant ninth.  Despite positioning himself well throughout the race, his usually fierce kick had failed him.

“You are really only as good as your last race,” Willis told reporters at a press conference here yesterday.  “I had some success in 2008 then went through a few seasons of injury, and these last Olympics were quite a disappointment for me.  I was one of the favorites, but in the final I basically crumbled.”

Willis, 29, the former NCAA champion for the University of Michigan who ran the New Zealand 1500m record of 3:30.35 just two weeks before the Olympics, had trouble shaking off his defeat.  He ran just three more races after the Olympics, then shut down his season in early September.  He was still mulling over what had happened in London, and he was short on answers and motivation.  He had been so fit and confident going into the Games, and was in fifth position on the inside at the bell, but faltered when eventual winner Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria began his long sprint on the backstretch.

“We were all really disappointed for him, not in him,” his wife Sierra told Race Results Weekly here yesterday.  “A lot of people would say ninth isn’t a bad place to be, and it’s not.  But with him you knew he would be really disappointed with that.”  She added: “We gave him hugs and told him we were proud of him.  He really didn’t want to talk about it right then.  I think that’s sort of been his process of working through things.”

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Here for the B.A.A. Invitational Mile on Sunday, a three-lap road race the streets of Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, Willis said it took months for him to restore both his confidence, fitness and usual intensity.  He and Sierra, who is pregnant with their first child, spent the winter in New Zealand surrounded by Willis’s family, and slowly Willis began to feel like himself again.

“I really had to go back to the drawing board and decide what do I love about this sport most of all because I was quite disillusioned,” he admitted.  “My dog took me out running every day.  He just kept on barking, and I would take him to the trails and I found a great love and passion for the sport again.”

Skipping the indoor season in the northern hemisphere, Willis did six different events in New Zealand and Australia in January, February and March, winning every race, albeit against mostly middling competition.  His fitness is good.  He is the early world leader at 1500m (3:34.68) and the mile (3:58.09), and said he is excited to get in some strong races in North American before Sierra gives birth in June.

“I really found a love for racing,” Willis said of his winter season.  He continued: “It really wasn’t until a month ago when one of my advisers in New Zealand highly encouraged me to sit for a “60 Minutes” type interview, and actually lay out the whole process.  He said it would be just as much for myself as for the New Zealand audience who wanted to know what happened.  It really did release a lot of the burden.”

After the interview, Willis was able to do something he hadn’t done in months: actually watch his Olympic race.

“I finally watched the race again after the interview; before I couldn’t,” he admitted.  “I watch heaps of YouTube track, all of the time.  That’s the one race I couldn’t watch again.”

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