Nick Willis Lives & Breathes the Mile, and is taking on all comers at New Balance Indoor GP Mile, by Elliott Denman

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Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net

Nick Willis is an Olympic silver medalist. That, dear friends, is a fact. Think about that! Olympic medalists at 1,500 meters are a rarefied genus on this planet. 

At the age of 31, Nick is a contender in any race he enters. Competitive, possessing amazing racing skills and knowing how to get himself into the fight, Nick Willis could be around for two more Olympics! 

Elliott Denman caught up with Nick Willis before the Kiwi takes on a tough field at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Saturday, February 7. 

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Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net
By ELLIOTT DENMAN

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    Nick Willis wins BAA 2014 road mile, photo by PhotoRun.net

BOSTON - The way Nick Willis looks at it, the long stretch - almost all of the 2009 season and much of 2010 - that he missed with knee trouble and then surgery - was pretty much a blessing in disguise.

    Sitting out high-level racing as he rehabbed gave the noted New Zealander the chance to recharge all his competitive batteries and build back the core strength that had lofted him close to the top of the global 1500-meter/one mile racing heap in the stretch between 2005 and 2009.

   By the fall of 2010, Willis was back in peak form and has been duking it out with the global elite ever since.

   He'll be 32 on the 25th of April but reckons he doesn't have the wear and tear on those precious limbs that any world-class runner his age would be expected to have.

   Sitting it out for that stretch, he "got to smell the roses" and realize all that he was missing while sitting on the sidelines.

    And he's been better and faster once he got back to the fray.

     "It may seem hard to explain to some people, but my speed keeps improving and I'm going to stay in the sport as long as it does," Willis said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his  winter training base in Flagstaff, Arizona.
 
   The 2016 Rio DeJaneiro Olympics (which would be his third)?  Most definitely.

   The 2020 Tokyo Games?  "Let's just wait and see," he tells you.

   But first things first and Willis has a big-time assignment this Saturday night at Boston's Reggie Lewis Center.  He and Morocco's Abdalati Iguider, the 2012 Olympic 1500-meter bronze medalist and 2012 World Indoor Championships gold medalist, head the field for the New Balance Mile, feature event of the New Balance Indoor Grand Pix.

   The NBIGP is the lone IAAF permit meet taking place in the USA this winter and its entry list is loaded with big-time talent.

   But the mile looks like the sure-shot spotlight-stealer with - beyond Willis and Iguider -such top ones as Ireland's Ciaran O'Lionaird, Australia's Craig Huffer, and fast-improving Americans Riley Masters and Ben Blankenship lining up in the 10-man field.

   Iguider brings career bests of 3:31.47 for 1500 and 3:51.78 for the mile to Boston. Irish Olympian and former Florida State star O'Lionaird has 3:52.10 mile credentials. Blankenship, the ex-Minnesota star, ran an 8:16.53 two-mile last Saturday at New York's Armory Track Invitational.  Masters, who started his college career at the University of Maine and finished up at Oklahoma,  has run a 3:58.41 mile.   

   "I don't know how the race is going to pan out, but I'm planning to run negative splits and be ready for anything," said Willis.

  "The Boston crowd is always into it, too.  And that's going to help all of us."

  Willis's hometown is Lower Hutt, New Zealand, but it's also Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  After starring at Hutt Valley High School, he was recruited away by the University of Michigan and enjoyed three big years as a Wolverine, before saying goodbye to undergraduate racing to turn pro - "I left Michigan two weeks before Alan Webb arrived" - and soon jet-setting around the global 
circuit.

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Nick Willis, 2009, photo by PhotoRun.net

  Among his many career highlights:

  --Winning the 2006 Commonwealth Games 1500-meter title in 3:38.49.

  --Taking the silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic 1500 in 3:34.16 (a promotion from his original bronze after first-placer Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain was booted out on a drug violation.)

   --Edging Bernard Lagat (by 1/100th of a second and running 3:50.5) to win New York's Fifth Avenue Mile in 2008.

   -- After being honored with selection as New Zealand's flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games, reaching his second Olympic 1500 final but running "only" ninth in 3:36.94.

  -- Regaining the Fifth Avenue Mile title with a 3:52.1 in 2013.  

  -- Joining the great John Walker as New Zealand's only other sub-3:50 miler with his 3:49.83 at the 2014 Bislett Games in Oslo, then six days later slicing the NZ 1500 record to 3:29.91 at the Diamond League Meet in Monaco.

   While the Willis family - wife Sierra and young son Lachlan (she's an American; their son has dual USA-NZ nationality) - spend much of the year in Ann Arbor, they also keep in close touch with his New Zealand roots.

  After Boston, Willis heads to The Big Apple to run the classic Wanamaker Mile at the 108th edition of the Millrose Games and the quality of that Feb. 14 race is stunning.  Willis will face Bernard Lagat, Matthew Centrowitz, Will Leer, Leo Manzano, Evan Jager and Edward Cheserek - among others - in a race already being billed as potentially one of the greatest in indoor track annals.

  And then the Willis Family flies off to Kiwi-land Down Under.

 "We'll spend six to 10 weeks there and it's always good to be back on home soil," he said.

   He's booked for two major races in his homeland - running 5000 meters in Auckland and 1500 in Wellington (not far from his Lower Hutt home)  - before starting his buildup to the 2015 Northern Hemisphere outdoor season.   

   "Of course, we'll take in all the lakes, rivers, mountainsides and every kind of scenery New Zealand has to offer; we really have a beautiful country, more Americans ought to see it," said Willis, speaking just like a representative of the New Zealand Travel Board.

  But the USA has been very, very good to him and he leads the good life when here, too.

  It's taken him seven years to finally complete the credits for his University of Michigan credits economics degree - "after turning pro, I was in no rush," he said - but knows he'll put that degree to use somewhere down the line.

   If Willis had stayed at Michigan when Webb checked in, there's no telling what feats they might have achieved that one season as teammates.

  But Webb - still the American mile record-holder with his 3:46.91 in 2007 - and Willis were like trains in the night, heading in different directions.

  "Alan and I, we still chat every once in a while, whenever we can," said Willis.

  Webb, of course, has embarked on a career in triathlon while Willis continues to focus on track.

  Willis's best triathlon advice to Webb: "Alan, work on your swimming; basically, if you're not in that front pack getting out of the water, you have no chance."

  Willis, though, is sticking to dry land.  Circling the world's leading tracks, running its biggest races, he's always found a way to get to the front of the pack and there's no reason at all to stop now.

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Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net   
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