After Delighting Family in NY, Willis Returns to DL in Monaco Enroute to Beijing, by Sabrina Yohannes

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Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net

Nick Willis in an Olympic silver medalist from Beijing. He wants to get back up on the podium. With his saavy, his racing experience, and his health, the Kiwi middle distance runner, via way of Michigan, is focused on Beijing. 

Sabrina Yohannes caught up with Nick before his visit to Europe...


After Delighting Family in NY, Willis Returns to DL in Monaco Enroute to Beijing

By Sabrina Yohannes


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Ben True, Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net

Nick Willis gave his dad a pleasant surprise a week before the Father's Day holiday in the United States. 

The Michigan-based former Olympic medalist from New Zealand Willis, who races at the Monaco Diamond League meet 1500m on Friday, was running in the New York DL on June 13.

"I was coming back from seeing my grandchildren and also doing a bit of work in Colorado," said Willis' father Richard, a retired geography professor from Wellington, New Zealand, who visited family in England in addition to Colorado. "So I stopped in New York to watch Nick run."

The 1500m specialist Nick was running the adidas Grand Prix 5000m against a field that included the event's 2012 Olympic medalists Dejen Gebremeskel of Ethiopia and Thomas Longosiwa of Kenya. 

"I wasn't expecting him to run that well in the 5000 because it's not his prime event," Richard Willis, speaking in New York after the race, said of his son's chances. 

To his surprise, after Gebremeskel dropped out and Longosiwa took the lead on the final backstretch of a slow race, Nick Willis pursued and then on the homestretch briefly overtook the leaders. He was reeled in by a fast-closing Ben True of the U.S., but the Kiwi took second.

"I was thrilled," said Richard Willis. "I was yelling the last few laps!"

He wasn't the only one pleased with the outcome.

"In longer distances, they drop me usually," said Nick Willis in an interview after the meet's end. "It's nice not to be dropped by the pack. It was nice to use my speed a little bit at the end. It would have been nicer to have won the race."

"I'll wait until the last 150 and try and pick up third or fourth or something," Willis said he had been thinking on the bell lap. "Suddenly, as I went, I was covering up the gaps and I got into the lead. But it's a long straightaway into the wind and the crowd was going nuts. I thought it was for me, but Ben True was the local hero coming through."

At least one voice in the crowd was and perhaps a few more were indeed going wild for the University of Michigan alum Willis, though his friend True, who had also scored a road race victory in NYC a fortnight earlier, garnered the bulk of the support.

Whether a race's total distance is 800m, 1500m or 5000m, Willis said, one thing is constant: "The last 50 meters, the feeling is the same: You are trying to get to the finish line." 


"I WANT TO GET BACK ON THE PODIUM"

A few key finish lines are coming up for Willis, who said he is gearing up for the 1500m in Monaco and for the August world championships in Beijing. It was in the Chinese capital that (following the disqualification of Bahraini winner Rashid Ramzi) Willis earned Olympic silver, after running down several men on the homestretch of the 2008 1500m final. 

All of his 2015 outdoor races and training blocks, whether at home in Ann Arbor or at altitude in Arizona, are focused on Beijing.  

"I'm keeping a very low-key season, not running often," he said. "First and foremost, I want to get back on the podium."

Willis first medaled at a major competition on the world stage at the 2006 Commonwealth Games where he took 1500m gold, and he became a global medalist two years later.

"Maybe I've got to have good solid running," said Willis. "I can't be fixated on my competitors. If you take care of what you do, which I haven't the last few years, that should be good for a medal."

He elaborated, saying, "I've watched what my competitors are doing and what I have to do to beat them. If I have good solid races, I can't be worried about what others are doing."

He'll be looking to run a solid race at the Herculis DL meet in Monaco on July 17. 

The 1500m race there is not part of the 2015 Diamond Race for points, but the entry list is studded with metric mile stars including Willis' fellow Beijing medalist Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, who ran 3:27.72 on the Monaco track two years ago; London Olympic medalists Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, Leo Manzano of the U.S. and Abdelaati Iguider of Morocco; two-time world medalist Matt Centrowitz of the U.S.; and reigning Commonwealth Games champion James Kiplagat Magut of Kenya.


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Nick Willis, photo by PhotoRun.net

Stepping down from his specialty distances, the Olympic 5000 and 10,000m champion Mo Farah is also running the 1500m, and his 2013 Monaco 3:28.81 runner-up finish; his world indoor two mile record earlier this year; and his late kick in winning the Lausanne DL 5000 last week make the Briton a force to be reckoned with at any track distance from 1500m on up.

Willis has also run 1500m personal records in Monaco, including his current best of 3:29.91, one of four personal bests he set last year over different distances. The 1500m mark last July followed finishes of 13:20.33 for 5000m that May and 3:49.83 in the Oslo Dream Mile and 7:36.91 for 3000m in June. He also ran an indoor mile PB this year, clocking 3:51.46 at the Millrose Games in NYC in February.

Willis kicked off his summer 2015 European racing stint last week with a 1500m win in 3:39.31 in Lignano, Italy and will remain on the continent between his races.

He said on Twitter on Monday that he was going to do an 800m time trial similar to the 1:49 one he did four days before his 2014 PB in Monaco. He added: "... [It] worked for my 3:49 and 3:29 last year, so we are doing it again tonight. Monaco 1500 in 4 days ..." 

He posted a video of that trial on Facebook the next day, with a comment that he'd run 1:46.9. His 800 PB is 1:45.54 from 2004, and he ran 1:45.87 in 2008.

He also spoke on social media of having simulated the upcoming Beijing rounds with three workouts in four days a few weeks ago.

Willis has not made the top five at the world championships to date, but he said in June that he is aiming this year to replicate the trajectory of his successful 2014 outdoor season, in which he opened up with a 5000m, and built up towards a podium finish at the Commonwealths.

At the 2015 worlds where he aims to peak, it seems likely that Willis, who is frequently accompanied by his wife Sierra and their young son at races including in New York, will have family members urging him on from the Beijing stands, perhaps yelling to the point of going hoarse, as Richard Willis said he did in NYC.

"I've watched Nick race many times," said the elder Willis, whose globe-trotting for that purpose has included trips to "three Olympics, three Commonwealth Games -- which mean a lot to people in New Zealand and Australia, four world championships, and Diamond Leagues, Golden Leagues."

Nick Willis has climbed the 1500m podium at every Commonwealth Games since his gold-medal outing in Melbourne, Australia in 2006, taking bronze in Delhi, India in 2010 and last year in Glasgow, Scotland. Come August, he hopes to put together another medal-winning performance in the Bird's Nest stadium. 

Willis began his 2015 outdoor season by delivering an early Father's Day gift, and if he gets his Beijing podium wish, he may just end the season the same way. 

The date of the Beijing 2015 men's 1500m final, August 30, happens to be exactly one week before Father's Day in New Zealand, which is observed on the first Sunday in September. 

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