Dave Hunter wrote this piece for RunBlogRun. Nick Willis is one of the most enduring athletes in our sport. I first watched Nick Willis in action in Helsinki in 2005. I had the pleasure of watching Nick in all of his World Champs, both indoor and out. I also saw him in 2008, 2012 and 2016 at the Olympics and have been fortunate to see him run his big runs in Monaco.
What is most striking about Nick Willis? In my mind, three things. The first: His devotion to his wife and family. I have observed Nick and his wife, Sierra, with his son Lachlan, and his youngest son, Darcy. It is what love looks like. The second: his devotion to his coach, Ron Warhurst, who is one of the finest coaches on this planet, and the third: Nick makes few mistakes in Championship races, with his Rio 2016 being perhaps the finest last 50 meters that this writer has seen in many, many championships.
Nick Willis, 2020 New Balance Indoor GP, photo by Mike Deering / The Shoe Addicts
Nick has broken 4 minutes for the mile for 20 years! His support of Hobbs Kessler and many other athletes increases his legacy. As Nick Willis considers his future, he is developing a career and supporting the brand, Tracksmith, a well-respected boutique running apparel clothing line. We wish him the best at Tracksmith and with his future in running.
Enjoy this piece by Dave Hunter, one of our long-time writers.
Nick Willis: His Enduring Career
June 1, 2022
It is difficult to become a professional athlete. Aspiring athletes in all sports must perform at a very high level to even enter the professional ranks. Once there, all athletes face the difficult task of maintaining – or improving – their performance level. Most eventually find it too difficult over time. That is why professional athletes who miraculously maintain that superior performance level over extended periods of time are rare indeed. Oh, there are a few: consider football’s Tom Brady (7 Super Bowl rings; widely considered as the greatest of all time; going strong at age 44)); basketball’s LeBron James (the 37-year-old James has 4 NBA Championship rings; is definitely in the conversation for NBA’s G.O.A.T, and will become NBA’s all-time leading scorer next year – his 20th NBA season) and baseball’s Cal Ripken (31 year MLB career; holds MLB record of competing in 2,632 consecutive games). And worthy of joining that select company of long-enduring, high-performing athletes is a well-accomplished track & field middle-distance specialist: New Zealand’s Nick Willis.
Nick Willis (far left), 2020 New Balance Indoor GP, photo by Mike Deering / The Shoe Addicts
During his racing career, Nick Willis has assembled an impressive body of work that spans over two decades. While developing a striking range (1:45.54 800m speed combined with 1:07.08 half-marathon endurance) the Kiwi has focused his best efforts on the 1500m / mile racing opportunities. A 6-time New Zealand national champion, Willis has climbed the Olympic podium twice, capturing 1500m meter silver in the 2008 Beijing Games and eight years later earning an Olympic bronze in the uber-tactical 1500m final in the ’16 Rio Games. Earlier that same year, the former University of Michigan athlete captured bronze in the 1500m final at the World Indoor Championships held in Portland, Oregon. Willis is a 3-time 1500m medalist at the Commonwealth Games, winning the gold in 2006 and earning the bronze in both 2010 and 2014. Willis has personal bests that few can match: 3:29.66 for the 1500m; 3:49.83 for the mile. He is one of only a select group [e.g. roughly 2 dozen men – mostly eastern African athletes – including just two Americans (Lagat and Maree); two Brits (Kerr and Coe); and Willis is the only New Zealander to have run sub-3:30 for 1500m and sub-3:50 for the mile.
In recent years, Nick Willis found unique ways to stay motivated and engaged as a world-class middle-distance athlete. In addition to staying fit; Willis found new and engaging ways to expand his talent (e.g. street miles). But perhaps one of the stronger motivations that fueled his drive to continue to explore his potential was his annual consistency in racing sub-4:00 minute miles. “I think it was 2018 when someone came up with a list and said, ‘Wait, you’re only one year away from tying John Walker’s streak’ which was 18 years of successive sub-four-minute miles,” explains Willis who will candidly admit he hadn’t been aware he was honing in on the annual sub-4 record held by the first man to break 3:50 in the mile. “I managed to beat Walker’s record last year ,” explains Willis during the 2022 pre-Millrose press conference. And with a smile, he adds, “But now 19 doesn’t seem like a nice round number to do it for two decades – it [the 20th year sub-4:00] is a worthy goal.”
The next day the New Zealander toed the line for the Wanamaker Mile in quest of that worthy goal – to ring up the 20th year of successive sub-four-minute miles. “I am sure I’ll take a peek at the clock but I can’t really,” says Willis who suspected his chase to break at 4:00 will not be easy. “I desperately don’t want to come last in the race. It’s a good field. I could still have a great run and come last. And there’s no shame in that. I’m going to race it.” Employing a race plan that required tempo, patience, and a furious finish, Willis beat the clock, finishing 9th and crossing the line in 3:59.71 – the round-numbered 20th year sub-4 secured!
Playing a meaningful role in Nick’s success in ringing up that 20th year sub-4 was former high school phenom Hobbs Kessler, an exceptional talent who first broke the 4-minute barrier in 2021 as a high school senior clocking 3:57.66. Kessler, staying astride his mentor during the Wanamaker mile, exhorted Willis onward and crossed just .05 seconds ahead of his mentor to help Willis seal the sub-4:00 time. The young Michigander and Willis had earlier become training partners and it gave Kessler a role-reversal opportunity to pace with Willis in his quest for the 20th year sub-4:00 and, at the same time, to show appreciation for the mentoring Willis had been providing the young star.
Nick Willis, Chris O’Hare, 2020 New Balance Indoor GP, photo by Mike Deering / The Shoe Addicts
Nick Willis modestly downplays his role in Kessler’s development. “I think sometimes it gets built up more than the reality of it. He’s a good kid and we’ve got a great training group and he is one of the members,” explains Willis. “He’s a handful,” notes Willis of his protégé and his talent. “I’ve played a minor role in his development. It is mostly a credit to him and his dad and our coach Ron Warhurst. The fact that I’ve been able to use some of my connections to help get him into some early races before he made a name for himself has helped. I think now he is going to do the rest of it mostly for himself.”
Just as Kessler is grateful for Nick’s tutelage, Willis, 39 years of age and now in the twilight of his career, knows that his elder-statesman role with this promising young middle-distance talent – serving as a mentor and passing along some wisdom he has learned over the years – has benefitted himself as well. “He [Kessler] keeps me motivated to stay in shape. I want to have an influence on his career. And the best way to do that is to pace him in workouts,” he explains.” And with a smile, he adds, “And I have to be in shape to be able to do that.” / Dave Hunter /