Willis after big names

01:43, Jan 31 2009
WINNING WAYS: Commonwealth Games champion Nick Willis won the New Zealand 1500m title yesterday - he used the race to work on some 'weaknesses'.

Commonwealth Games champion Nick Willis is chasing the scalps of the world's best 1500m stars to reinforce his claim as a medal contender at the Beijing Olympics.

Willis -- who won the New Zealand 1500m title yesterday to mark his six-month wedding anniversary -- used the Auckland race as a chance to work on some "weaknesses" before a May 20 showdown with world No. 1 Bernard Lagat in Los Angeles.

"It would be fantastic for me to get his scalp," said Willis, who returns to his United States base today with his wife, Sierra, to complete his application for a coveted Green Card.

Willis -- who believes there are 20 runners capable of winning medals in Beijing -- will run seven big races in Europe and the US before the Olympics.

"It's really important for me to get some scalps of the best guys in the world and post a fast time, so if I do run near the front in Beijing they are going to be standing back, a little timid to make the extra move," he said. "You've got to earn that respect. That's what I've got to do first to confirm my spot as one of the main contenders for a medal."

Willis -- who strode out for a 12km training run yesterday morning before his Auckland race -- followed the tactics of his brother and co-coach, Steven Willis, to perfection at Mount Smart Stadium.

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Before tearing away with 450m to go, the Wellingtonian had tucked in behind the early pacesetters to iron out the problems which saw him disqualified for stepping on the inside of the track after a fifth-place finish at this month's world indoor championships in Valencia.

"Victory was first and foremost (yesterday), but I'm really trying to work on different aspects of my race, which I've often been weak on in the past, for the Olympics."

That included "running right up to the shoulder of the leader, rather than being stuck on the inside of him".

"That's why I got disqualified in the world (indoor) champs. Now I'm learning to be a bit more pumped on the outside and then in the last 200 really relax while still striding through like I did in (the gold medal run in) Melbourne two years ago."

Willis said his main beef with his disqualification in Valencia was missing out on the prize money -- "$6000 down the drain". But the ruling had still come as a surprise.

He had had his "head down, very disappointed that I was fifth. I was really wanting a medal", he said.

"I went into the locker room to get changed and spent about 15 minutes getting changed and talking to the other athletes and trying to congratulate the Spanish guys" who had really run medals.

"When I came out, a fan said: `How do you feel about getting disqualified?' I didn't even know.

"It wasn't as though as I had done anything I felt was illegal. But it's good to learn the rules," said Willis who suspected the regulations were stricter in indoor events.

Willis's main coach is still legendary American mentor Ron Warhurst, but his brother Steven is accompanying him this year for all his races up to and including Beijing.

Willis praised Aucklander Luke Hurring and Canterbury's Andrew Davidson for maintaining a good clip through the first three laps.

He arrived in New Zealand on March 14 to spend time with his family in Wellington and had the last week in Auckland after attending a friend's wedding there.

"I've got to go back (today) to get my Green Card. Now I'm married (since September) to my wife Sierra, who's American, it will just allow me to travel a bit safely," he said.

Willis backed up his 1500m win by running a personal best of 48.6sec in the second leg of the 4x400m relay.  

The Press