Nick Willis saving full throttle for the final

KICKING ON: New Zealand's Nick Willis leads his 1500m round at the London Olympics.
KICKING ON: New Zealand's Nick Willis leads his 1500m round at the London Olympics.

Beijing silver medallist Nick Willis will shed his conservative racing strategy as he goes for gold in the 1500m at the London Olympic Games against the cocky Kenyans.

The New Zealand Olympic team flagbearer has gained confidence from a record-breaking run in Monaco two weeks ago that he can stick with Olympic champion Asbel Kiprop and his Kenyan compatriot Silas Kiplagat as they strive to set a cracking pace in the London 2012 final on Wednesday morning (NZ time).

“The main area I've been overly tentative with, in the past, is thinking I have to conserve distance and energy in order to be able to sprint with the best," Willis told the Sunday Star-Times.

“But in that [Diamond League Monaco] race, I closed my last 800m in 1min 50sec. And that was even off a fast pace.

“In theory, in these [qualifying] rounds, I can go through seven or eight seconds slower and all I'd have to run is a 1:50, based on how other qualifying has gone.

“So I have the flexibility now of running in lane two or three and not worrying about being as conservative, so I don't get myself boxed in, or in-behind positions in the future." If you listen to the Kenyans, they've got all the medals around their necks already.

Kiprop, 23, said last week the Kenyans, “being the three top athletes in the world at the moment", were “surely taking of a clean sweep in the 1500m". That prospect looked to have come unstuck after Nixon Chepseba stumbled twice and finished outside the first six qualifying places in yesterday's heats. The Kenyan team lodged an appeal immediately after the race however and it was deemed Chepseba had been tripped and he was reinstated to the semi-finals.

“I had to make sure that from 600m to go, and if the opportunity presented itself, to be the one to box my fellow competitors. I fought with the Kenyan to the bell line then all the others just followed and he got caught and boxed in the back straight and could not get out.” Willis suspects the Kenyans will “try and run 3:29 or 3:30 without the help of pacemakers".

“I'm not going to guarantee that's going to happen, I have to prepare for a lot of different scenarios but I would say that's the most likely scenario." Willis looms as the greatest threat to a Kenyan double, but he doesn't think Kiprop and Kiplagat will conspire to block him out.

“When you're running 3:29 there's no boxing, it's a long line and you're just hanging on for dear life. I'm happy to be on the rail at that pace, the field will spread out quickly. After three days [heat, semifinal and final], it's a war of attrition then." Kiprop has run the fastest time in the world this year, 3min 28.88sec in Monaco. Kiplagat has also broken 3min 30 and Willis was only marginally over, at 3min 30.31, after clipping 1.44 sec off his New Zealand record at Monaco.

In Beijing four years ago, Willis was in 11th place with 400m to go before he snuck through a gap at the 300m mark to finish behind Bahrain's Rashid Ramzi - who was later stripped of his title for blood doping - and Kiprop. He is adamant he is “definitely a lot fitter" now than he was in Beijing where his buildup centred on increasing his speed.

“Whether I'm as aggressive or have the same belief, we'll just have to wait and see. But my fitness is proven by my times, I'm a good two seconds fitter than I ever was before.

“That's a result of being healthy finally for a good period of time to be able to get some consistent training in, nothing special, just simple stuff, day after day." A true student of his sport, Willis has a high regard for those New Zealanders who have trod the Olympic 1500m tracks before him - notably former champions Jack Lovelock (1936), Peter Snell (1964) and John Walker (1976).

Hence his tweet message this week: “Four years after Beijing, here we are New Zealand, with another chance to show the world the great 1500m tradition of the black singlet."

Nick Willis's main rivals, including Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat, coasted through the heats yesterday.

Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi was the fastest qualifier in 3.35.15.

Willis clocked 3min 40.92s in winning his heat.

Willis was confident he still has plenty of gas in the tank for the semi, assuming he advances, and the final on Wednesday morning.

“I thought I might be able to sprint away in the last 100m, so maybe I was a little over-confident. I held them off and they did not come at me. I did not pull way in a canter either.

"We delay speed work because we run three rounds at the Olympics. The idea is to use the first round to reawaken the legs. The final snap is not there so we will see how it goes in the next two races.

"Hopefully they will feel snappier in the semi, but you can not complain when they feel dull and you win your race.”

Sunday Star Times