Nick Willis of New Zealand after the 1500m final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
It wasn’t everything he wanted, but it was exactly what he needed.
For Nick Willis, the bronze medal he won at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games did a lot of things. It gave him proof, at the age of 33, that he wasn’t past his sell-by date, even in an event as frenetic as the 1500m.
It was a way of repaying his family, his coach, his sponsors – those who placed their stock in him with unwavering, unconditional support.
More than anything, it brought redemption, a way to right the wrong of the 2012 Olympics, when Willis walked off the track dejected, disgusted, but had no one to blame but himself.
As James Joyce once wrote, mistakes are only the portal of discovery, and that August evening in London, Willis discovered an important lesson which, four years on, would propel him back to the Olympic podium in Rio.
“When you’re on the downward side of the peak, you can run one or even two good races,” he says, “but to run three, you’ve got to be on the upward curve.”
It sounds simple, at least in theory, but at the last Olympics Willis was on the wrong side of that peak, and he swore it was a mistake he’d only make once.
The problem was this: two months out from the 2012 Games, Willis was in the shape of his life, finishing some workouts with a 50-second 400m. If anything, he was too fit.
“We got greedy,” he said. “When things started going well, we just kept going because we got excited. Deep down I knew this wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
Three weeks before the Games, Willis ran a national record of 3:30.35 in Monaco, but instead of edging him closer towards his peak, as he had hoped, that race pushed him over the edge.
He went to London feeling flat, but nonetheless advanced through the heat and semi-final with ease. However, the final – that fateful third race – found him out, and Willis trailed home ninth in 3:36.94, knowing he had left a medal behind him.
“That would be one of the biggest regrets of my career,” he said, “the one that had the biggest impact.”
Those around Willis, like his coach, Ron Warhurst, and his wife, Sierra, took the blow just as hard.
“London was the lowest point,” says Sierra. “There was a lot of sadness and we had to work through it for a long time. We operate as a team, so when we fail, we fail as a team and the responsibility of some of the planning is on me too. He was distraught over that race.”
Taking time out
In the aftermath, Willis considered walking away from the sport, and while caught in career limbo he decided to go back to college to complete his degree at the University of Michigan, preparing himself for an office job and a steady income that didn’t depend on such fine margins.
With his shoe contract up, Willis ran sporadically for several months, throwing his shoes on and hitting the roads whenever he felt the urge, but with no competitive desire.
Eventually, the fire sparked again, and once Willis decided to train his sights on Rio, he set out on the journey in his customary approach.
“There was no looking back from that point on,” he said. “It was 100 per cent.”
Last summer Willis lowered his PB to 3:29.66 in Monaco, but six weeks on, at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, he was found ever-so-slightly wanting when the heat came on in the final and he finished sixth in 3:35.46.
The Olympic year called for a new approach, one where Willis and his team would challenge the accepted wisdom that an athlete needs several hard, competitive races to reach their peak.
“I was patient,” says Willis. “I didn’t try to use training or races to give me confidence before the Olympics. I trusted that the timing and the plan would have me in the best shape when I needed to be and I didn’t need evidence from my stopwatch.”
Willis ran his last race nine weeks out from the Games, then concentrated on the type of training that has produced the best results for him in recent years: strength.
“I’ve included a lot more 5000m training,” he says. “I delayed all specific workouts until the last two weeks. My training partners were all beating me in workouts and I wasn’t doing anything fancy, but I said to myself: ‘I’m going to trust that I peak very, very quickly, so I have to be very, very patient and use the rounds as my rust-busting races’.”
Eyes on the prize
Willis coasted through his qualifying heat in sixth place, then finished fastest of all in his semi-final to place third, jogging off the track immediately as his mind shifted towards his ultimate target.
The morning of the final, Willis received a barrage of messages from Warhurst, who has guided his career for the past 14 years, ever since he showed up to enrol at the University of Michigan as a swaggering, self-confident 19-year-old.
“One of these times he’s going to pay attention to what I tell him,” says Warhurst. “I always tell him the same thing: I don’t like him running on that rail and up into people’s butts. His mentality is: ‘I’m running a shorter distance’.”
The seven text messages he sent to Willis the morning of the race contained advice to that effect.
“They basically said: ‘you can close in 39 in a 3:29 race, so don’t be afraid of using that energy running wide in a slower race’,” recalls Willis. “He told me if it’s going to be over three minutes [at 1200m] you still have to close in 37 or 38, so don’t be afraid to use more energy running hard.”
Shortly before the final, Willis experienced a terrifying bout of nerves in the call room, but settled himself by thinking of his three-year-old son, Lachlan, who was watching at home on TV, an image which let him appreciate what a rare chance he had to be on the cusp of an Olympic final.
When the gun fired, Willis ran a typically conservative race, positioning himself mid-pack and trying to stay out of trouble as the field crawled through 800 metres in 2:16.59. As they reached the bell, Willis was living Warhurst’s worst nightmare, trapped on the inside in fifth, a wall of athletes blocking all escape routes.
He turned for home in sixth, but stepped out into lane two and soon found daylight. As Matt Centrowitz of the USA fought off all challengers to win gold in 3:50.00, Willis charged late and fast between athletes to take bronze in 3:50.24.
“It’s a huge, huge internal satisfaction,” says Willis. “I wanted to prove to myself that all the things I thought went wrong in London were things I could fix.”
And having proved that in definitive fashion, Willis doesn’t see this as the finish line. On Saturday he announced he will commit to another four-year cycle, with the 1500m being his target for 2017 before he slowly transitions to the 5000m ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“I’m going to take it year by year and it’s reasonable for me to give the 5000m and even marathon a serious crack as my speed wanes,” he said. “As long as I can still break 50 for 400m in training, I see that as enough speed to step into 1500m. Once I can’t, I’ll start moving up.”
His speed hasn’t waned, nor has his desire, so Willis sees no reason to step off this train just yet.
“What a unique opportunity I have to travel the world and run as a means to support my family,” he says. “It’s very easy to be motivated and put my shoes on every day. I want to do this for as long as I possibly can.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF