Willis embodies the true Olympic champion

TONY SMITH IN LONDON
Last updated 15:36 07/08/2012
Nick Willis
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ
CHAMPION: Nick Willis shakes the hand of a fellow competitor after finishing his 1500m semi-final.

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Nick Willis may or may not win the 1500m gold medal tomorrow morning, but he is carrying himself like an Olympic Games champion.

The 29-year-old from Lower Hutt, who followed older brother Steve down to the Hutt Recreation Ground to the local athletics club, stands on the brink of middle distance greatness.

If he can conquer the Kenyan troika, Willis will join Jack Lovelock (1936), Peter Snell (1964) and John Walker (1976) as Olympic champions in one of the Games' greatest events.

The 2012 Olympics will be forever remembered for the best  100m in its history.  But, we've had the warm-up act.  Bring on the main feature:  four laps of the track - not 100m of the home straight - before 80,000 wildly cheering fans.

Willis and his middle-distance peers may not be household names like sprinters Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin. 

But the metric mile is the feature event on tomorrow's card.  Eighty thousand pairs of eyes will track their progress around Olympic stadium.

This is a big-ticket event. It's why two million people clamoured for tickets to the blue-riband finals sessions.

There is more pressure on Willis tomorrow, if only because of his blistering finish in Beijing, and he can no longer sneak under the radar.

Willis' medal winning run in Beijing caught most pundits on the hop, except Walker who predicted his young successor could do it.

He had the 14th fastest time in the world in 2008 but enters tomorrow's race as the fourth quickest this season.

Willis will be the man Kenyans Asbel Kiprop, Silas Kiplagat and Nixon Chepseba cast nervous glances at on the final lap.

The Kiwi looks to have the measure of Chepseba, ranked third in the world in 2012.  Willis has beaten him twice in London, in the heats and the semi-final.

But Kiplagat beat Willis in the 2010 Commonwealth Games final in Delhi.

Kiprop has the psychological advantage of having beaten Willis in the Olympic and 2011 world championship final.  He may also have a physical edge, having cruised through his heat in a leisurely time to qualify for the semi-final.

Kiprop also has the added incentive of becoming the first man in 28 years to win back-to-back Olympic 1500m titles. The current record holder will be at the stadium - London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe.

Willis will be conscious of the lineage he represents when he lackes on his spikes.

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He wasn't born when Walker became the third and last New Zealander to win 1500m gold, but Willis knows all about his predecessors' deeds.

So many athletes today can talk about the "now'' but have little feel for the past. As a boy, Willis set out to buck the trend by finding out all he could about New Zealand's track forebears.

He told us in Beijing he had read No Bugles, No Drums by Peter Snell, John Walker's biography and Kiwis Can Fly that chronicled Walker's, Dick Quax's and Rod Dixon's European tours.

And, although Willis has run faster than Lovelock, Snell and Walker, he is first to admit they had few of his modern day advantages, "though they trained hard, they had to work 40 hours.''

It's his innate love of what he does that endears Willis to most he meets.

He's a much more rounded character than the nervous young University of Michigan college student who snuck into the final in Athens in 2004 alongside two greats of the genre,  Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenyan expatriate Bernard Lagat, who will represent the United States at London in the 5000m.

After a decade in the United States, a Commonwealth Games title and an Olympic medal, Willis now possesses a level of confidence common to American sportspeople. Confidence not swagger.

His focus can be steely. Willis barely slowed to a trot in the mixed zone - where athletes talk to the media - after his semi-final. He was apologetic,  but he had to keep warming down to get the lactic acid out of his legs after a quicker than expected race.

Yet, he can also switch off and relax when required. This week, he's been reading C S Lewis' Narnia books to immerse himself in a parallel world.

Wherever Willis goes - except  the athletes' villages which spouses can't  access - wife Sierra is at his side. Brother Steve, also a sub four-minute miler, is his assistant-coach and an Olympic-accredited New Zealand team official.

Michigan-based coach Ron Warhurst came to London to confer with his charge and two training buddies also dropped in to help his final preparation.

Willis has done his preparation and is looking the part.

He stands on the brink of becoming the first New Zealander since Snell (1960 and 1964) to win consecutive Olympic middle-distance medals.

Willis appeals as the main man in the way of the Kenyans achieving the first single-nation clean sweep in the 1500m in 108 years since Americans James Lightbody, Frank Verner and Lacey Hearn at St Louis in 1904.

Whatever, the result, Willis appeals as the New Zealand athlete most likely to rise to Rudyard Kipling's poem, If, by meeting with Triumph and Disaster and treating "those two imposters just the same".

It's a matter of faith. Willis told the website of Athletes In Action, the outreach arm for Christian athletes, that prior to becoming a Christian in 2003, his "whole motivation for becoming a great athlete was to be significant to my peers and to get the recognition of being in the newspapers and being somebody important''.

Now, he says, he has been "freed from a lot of those empty, non-sustaining motives for doing my sport''.  His motivation "for doing my best is out of a thankful heart''.

"The freeing side of that is whether I win or finish second or eighth or don't even get to run that season because of injury, God doesn't care about the actual result for me. He cares that I am thankful for whatever opportunity I have been given and try my best.''

- © Fairfax NZ News

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