LRC Q&A: High School 800 Star Roisin Willis on Running 2:00, Learning from Athing Mu, & Her Friendship with Juliette Whittaker & Sophia Gorriaran

By Jonathan Gault
July 15, 2021

2021 was a banner year for girls’ high school 800-meter running. Not one, not two, but three high school girls’ 800 runners qualified for the US Olympic Trials as the all-time high school performance list underwent some serious revisions…which look set to continue in 2022, considering all three athletes have high school eligibility remaining.

The youngest of the three, Sophia Gorriaran, a rising junior at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., ran at the Trials just four days after her 16th birthday and though she did not advance out of the first round, she clocked a personal best of 2:02.26.

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Juliette Whittaker, a rising senior at Mount de Sales Academy in Cantonsville, Md., advanced to the semifinals at the Trials with her 2:01.21 first-round effort. She was the first woman out of the final, running 2:01.30 to finish sixth in her semi, and her 2:01.15 pb ranks her #7 on the all-time high school list, one spot ahead of US champion Athing Mu.

As brilliant as Gorriaran and Whittaker were, neither was the fastest high schooler of 2021. That honor went to Roisin Willis, a rising senior at Stevens Point Area Senior High School in Wisconsin, whose 2:00.78 at the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier on May 21 elevated her to #4 on the all-time high school list (Willis advanced to the semis at the Olympic Trials, finishing 7th in her semi). It was on the strength of that race in New York — one in which Willis defeated both Gorriaran and Whittaker — that Willis, daughter of Irish 5000 Olympian Breeda Dennehy-Willis, was named 2020-21 Gatorade National Girls’ Track and Field Player of the Year on Wednesday.

Courtesy Gatorade

Willis has appreciated the opportunity to grow close to Gorriaran and Whittaker this year — the trio teamed up with Bailey Goggans to run a world indoor U20 record in the 4×800 relay in January — and is taking some well-deserved downtime ahead of her senior year, when she wants to improve upon her 400m personal best of 52.64. LRC caught up with Willis over the phone on Tuesday.

LRC What was the biggest highlight of your season?

RW: Running 2:00 was definitely a big breakthrough for me. I PR’d by almost three seconds. So I think that was probably my most proud moment. But I also got experiences like running at the Trials and I definitely got to connect with a lot of the high school athletes in my event. So those also meant a lot. But I think running 2:00 was definitely the highlight because it was such a big breakthrough.

Did you expect to run anything close to that time going in? What were your thoughts when you saw that time up on the clock?

All season, I was putting in work that was indicating I could run that time. But two weeks prior, I had a poor race and I was starting to lose confidence in myself. So I was kind of going into that race with no thought because I really didn’t know why I wasn’t hitting the times I was predicting. So I tried my best, but then to actually see it come to fruition and see that time on the board was an incredible feeling. I was shocked at first, but I really worked hard all season to try and run that time. 

What was the coolest thing about competing at the Olympic Trials?

Obviously, Hayward Field is a magic place, but definitely being around all those incredible women. We’re sending three women off to Tokyo that could potentially medal. So being around some of my idols and being able to race with people who could go on to win medals was absolutely unreal. To be able to talk to some of them was just incredibly inspiring. I definitely left the Trials very inspired for the future.

Who were you able to talk to? Had they been following your results this season at all?

I was able to talk to Athing Mu a little bit. My last race at the trials wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but she was like you’re only 16, keep your head up. I just felt like that was really special for her to say that. She’s come a long way from high school as well, so to see someone improve that much, I was really inspired by her.

USATF is not sending a team to the World U20 championships (in Kenya from August 17-22). Do you wish that it had? And if it was sending a team, would you have tried to make that team?

They were supposed to have a World U20 Champs last year in 2020, so that was my goal for last year, to make that team. And this year we didn’t know and now they’re not. I do want to make a USA team and I would like to make a U20 team first. I think that would be a really good experience. I want to compete against people my age. I’ve been doing some pro races, but I think it’s really good to compete at your level and do well in the age-group [meets]. So I would really like to make a U20 team. I’m not sure when the next time that they’ll do that [is] (Editor’s note: there is supposed to be a World U20 Championships in Colombia next year), but that would definitely be a goal if it would happen again.

Did you take some time off after the Trials? What have you been up to in your free time?

After the Trials, I went out to Seattle and ran the Brooks PR [meet]. I PR’d in the 400 meters (52.64), so that was a big boost for me. I’ve been on a break for a week now. It’s been really nice just to take some time off. I had to make so many sacrifices during the season, so to be able to relax and not have to stress about running 24/7 is really nice. I think it’s good to take a break after a long year, but I’m really motivated for next year. 

Do you consider yourself more of a 400/800 runner or 800/1500 runner?

Oh man. I mean, it’s switched the whole season because I had a big PR in the 1600 (4:41.46 in April) and then PR’d in the 400 as well. I think maybe long-term I might be more 800/1500, but I’m going to work as hard as I can for it to be 400/800 in high school because I’m going to work on my speed. I do want an improvement in the 400. So I’m going to see where it goes. When I’m ready, I’ll work on the 1500, but I’m just not quite there yet.

You mentioned forming connections with some of the other elite high school girls. I’m guessing you meant Juliette Whittaker and Sophia Gorriaran, who have both been running really well this year. What is your relationship with those two women like?

We have such a good relationship. We’re so supportive of each other. I’ve definitely had a lot of time this year to talk to both of them. I’m so happy to see them succeed, and I hope they feel the same way about me — I’m pretty sure they do. I think that’s why we’ve been running so well, because we support each other. They push me to be a better athlete and person. So when I see them running 2:01 and 2:02, it inspires me to do that as well. I think it’s really great that we all have a really good relationship. We ran on a 4×800 this year and I think that set the tone, it was really positive.

You attend a high school that has some pretty famous alums in track & field. Have you had the opportunity to meet Chris Solinsky or Suzy Favor Hamilton? Have they offered you any advice?

I have not. They currently don’t live here so I haven’t really talked to them. But my coaches here have coached them, so they kind of give some wisdom of what their high school experience was like. But I don’t really have a relationship with them. But they definitely are people I look up to when it comes to track. They’ve done good things in the sport, so I think it’s cool to see you can make it big out of this town and run at big races. I think it’s cool to have those people from my high school, for sure.

What are your goals for next season, your senior year?

I haven’t quite outlined them. My goal is always to improve, that’s always my #1 goal and just set myself up for the season. I definitely want to PR in the 400, that’s definitely a big goal of mine, I want to improve on my speed, and if I don’t have the chance to run any more mile races, that’s fine. I’m definitely looking at the bigger meets. I’ll have the opportunity to hopefully run in the World trials so that will be good to have another experience with those rounds. I’m definitely going to be challenged a lot next season. I haven’t outlined what my races will be, but just looking for improvement and setting myself up for college.

Talk about Roisin Willis and Hobbs Kessler on the world famous LetsRun.com messageboard/fan forum: MB: LetsRun catches up with HS stars Roisin Willis and Hobbs Kessler .

Related: Hobbs Kessler on Why He Went Pro Now, Training in Flagstaff, and…Lego? Kessler spoke to LetsRun after he was named Gatorade National Male Track and Field Player of the Year on Wednesday, just the third distance runner to receive the honor in the last 20 years. He tells us what the first thing he bought with his money was and talks about whether he can run xc for NAU.

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