RRW: At NYRR Millrose Games, Nick Willis Seeks Title & Change

NEW YORK (18-Feb) — If Nick Willis’s career ended tomorrow, the Kiwi would be satisfied. On his resume is an Olympic silver medal from 2008, three NYRR Fifth Avenue Mile titles, and personal bests of 3:49.83 and 3:29.66 for the mile and 1500m, respectively.

Yet before Willis contemplates hanging up his adidas spikes, the 32-year-old wants two very important things: 1) an NYRR Wannamaker Mile crown, and 2) the assurance of clean sport.

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On Saturday Willis will race at the historic NYRR Millrose Games for the fifth time, vying for the coveted ‘King of the Boards’ crown and the honor that comes along with it. Last year he finished runner-up by .11 of a second, while in 2014 he finished third (he was also second in 2009 and third in 2008).

“I would absolutely love to win this. It’s the primary reason I come back,” said Willis, speaking at a Midtown Manhattan hotel. “I think this is actually my 18th or 19th time to the City, in which I’ve raced 16 or 17 of those trips. This has probably been the most prominent destination that I’ve competed at in my career… I feel it’s like home.”

Fresh off a 3:53.27 win in the mile at last week’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, Willis feels confident going into this meeting. Familiar with The Armory and its fast oval, Willis is primed to do whatever it takes to secure the Wannamaker Mile trophy, which resembles a shrunken Stanley Cup. Rival Matt Centrowitz has requested a pace that sets the stage for a sub-3:50 performance. Willis doesn’t even bat an eye at the thought of that blistering clip.

Having raced on the professional circuit for a decade, Willis wants to use his experience both on and off the track this weekend. Physically, the former University of Michigan star feels prepared for any kind of race on Saturday, when he takes on some of the world’s best milers like Centrowitz, Britain’s Chris O’Hare, and former NCAA champion Robby Andrews.

Emotionally, he is motivated to seek change.

A father of a young son, Willis wants to set an example and stand up for clean sport, sick of the mess that track and field has found itself in globally. IAAF President Sebastian Coe announced this week that Kenya could potentially be banned from the 2016 Olympics for being non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency code, the newest development in what has been a tumultuous twelve months for athletics.

“The whole banning a whole federation is a very challenging subject because obviously there are going to be a lot of innocent people who are sort of bystanders in that will be affected as well,” said Willis.

As an established veteran, Willis feels he is at a level where his voice can be heard. Unlike many up-and-coming athletes, he does not fear being “black listed” in the sport by event organizers, sponsors, or shoe companies. Perennially a top-five miler in the world, Willis also sports personal bests that speak for themselves.

While the IAAF circles the bandwagon searching for ways the sport can improve its sometimes porous drug testing system, Willis has come up with a scenario that could improve out-of-competition testing. Long a dark cloud over the anti-doping movement, testing in remote countries has been a challenge and burden. While Lord Coe has proposed banning entire countries and national governing bodies from future competition (such is the case with Kenya and Russia), Willis argues an alternative solution would impact all athletes training in problematic locales.

“One unique outlook I’ve sort of thought may be a possible solution is rather than [banning] federations, why not create a situation where the top-ten or top-15 athletes in the world, they have to train at least ten months of the year in a country where the country is under the compliant WADA code,” Willis began, speaking with passion. “If they are from a country that doesn’t have those places — a lot of my competitors are from Kenya, Ethiopia, or Djibouti, a lot of places that don’t have the funds to do that [have compliant testing facilities]. If you are a top-ten or top 15 athlete in the world, you have the sponsors, you have the means to go and train in Flagstaff as opposed to altitude there. It’s not ideal and it’s not necessarily fair, but it’s also not fair that a lot of these athletes are getting away with training in places where the testers cannot access them.”

With a growing number of media members surrounding him, Willis took the time to further elaborate on his proposal. He described a recent scenario involving friend Reid Coolsaet, an elite marathoner from Canada who has frequently trained in Kenya. According to Coolsaet (via a post on Twitter and reports in the Toronto Sun), many Kenyans (including Olympic medalists) had been notified more than a day in advance that they were going to be tested the following day. A day’s notice gives athletes time to prepare (or potentially evade) testers.

“What good is quality testing if you can’t actually test people [by surprise]? Or you can’t access them properly?” Willis told Race Results Weekly. Willis sees two benefits to his proposal: one, a better chance of testing being effective and keeping athletes accountable; and two, putting accountability on the nations who are losing elite athletes because their testing facilities (or lack there-of) are not up to code. “That’s just the unfortunate state of the sport. We’ve come to a point now, look, when people say no one deserves to be clean anymore. Even my name gets thrown out there. Why should you believe the next guy? You shouldn’t believe that I am clean — we’ve gotten to the point now where our sport has lost all credibility [where] no athletes deserve to be called clean. And I don’t care if people think that about me if it means we start actually addressing the issues to clean it up.”

When asked by RRW if he’d ever consider running for a position within the IAAF or WADA to initiate change, Willis said that when his career is over he’ll be first and foremost dedicated to his family. But he hopes by the time he’s done running that the sport is in a better place than it is now.

The NYRR Millrose Games does have drug testing, and top athletes are subjected to both in- and out-of-competition testing. When Willis toes the line on Saturday, he’ll do so fighting for two wins: A win in the most historic indoor mile in the world, and a win for clean sport.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, since I was racing [Bernard] Lagat and [Craig] Mottram [in the late 2000’s, back at Madison Square Garden],” he said. “It wouldn’t be a worthwhile achievement if I wasn’t beating great athletes in doing so.”

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