Fast semifinal saps New Zealand's Nick Willis

MARC HINTON
Last updated 05:00 09/08/2012
Nick Willis
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
HEARTBREAKING: New Zealand middle distance runner Nick Willis makes ninth place in the final of the men's 1500m.

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Leave it to Nick Willis to talk his way from heartbreak to happiness in the course of a six-and-a-half minute conversation with a posse of pressmen in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium.

At first glance this has been a disappointing Olympics for the pride of the Hutt Valley, after he ended a promising lead-in with a fading ninth-place finish in yesterday's final of the 1500 metres. The race was won by Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi, who shook off a knee strain and initial expulsion to take gold in 3min 34.08s.

When the moment of truth came, unlike in Beijing four years ago, the 29-year-old Michigan-based athlete could not summon the magic. He reflected afterwards that a swift semifinal had knocked the stuffing out of him, and pretty much everyone else.

Of the top five, Willis noted, four of them came from the snail-paced semi, which was eight seconds slower.

“I thought a faster race might be easier to recover from because you don't have to sprint at the end, but I certainly felt quite tired today.” With the Kiwi looking like he was wading through concrete over the closing 200m, a promising first three laps and a “perfect” position heading into the run home counted for nought.

“It's just heartbreaking when you put in so much work all year, and so many people stayed back from the start of their work day to watch, and to not be able to come through on the day that mattered most felt quite frustrating . I just had nothing left.”

After running much faster weeks ago in Monaco, Willis was disappointed to feel so helpless when it mattered.

“When the going got tough it was just a bit embarrassing,” he said, before wondering aloud whether he hadn't been “bitten on the arse” for talking it up a bit much in the lead up.

But then something switched. Some humour kicked in as he confirmed he'll kick on through to Rio in 2016.

Asked if he could still hold his head high, given the career he's had - Commonwealth Games gold and bronze, and that Olympic silver - a doubled-over Willis showed he was still sharp as a tack.

“Not right now because every time I stand up I feel like throwing up,” he shot back. “But when you've got a silver medal you always live that for the rest of your life.”

Asked to reflect on a Games where he carried the flag for his nation in the opening ceremony - let's not mention the curse, just now - and got to meet the Queen, Willis showed he's a fast recoverer.

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“It's been something I'll remember for the rest of my life, as much as winning a medal four years ago. Nothing is a bigger honour, especially the fact I've lived overseas for 10 years and to still be regarded by my fellow countrymen means a lot.”

A final word from Willis on the remarkable effort of Makhloufi, who followed in the long strides of compatriot Noureddine Morcelli to claim Algeria's seventh track and field medal, and fourth over 1500m. He'd been forced to run the 800m heats on Tuesday, then was initially thrown out of the 1500m final by the IAAF because he hadn't tried hard enough. But a medical report that showed he had a knee injury allowed for his restoration.

“Running that fast with an injury is pretty impressive.”

American Leonel Manzano and Moroccan Abdalaati Iguider claimed the minor medals but, like Willis, were left in the Algerian's dust.

- Fairfax Media

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