Cheers, tears on big night for Nick Willis

HAMISH BIDWELL
Last updated 05:00 28/02/2011
Nick Willis leads Will Leer down the home straight at in the mile at Wellington's Newtown Park in a meeting which doubled as a fundraiser for the Christchurch earthquake fund.
ROSS GIBLIN/Dominion Post
IN FRONT: Nick Willis leads Will Leer down the home straight at in the mile at Wellington's Newtown Park in a meeting which doubled as a fundraiser for the Christchurch earthquake fund.

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Hamish Christensen's national mile record never came under serious threat but neither Nick Willis nor the crowd of more than 2000 left Newtown Park disappointed.

Saturday night in Wellington was a time for both celebration and remembrance and, on that score, it delivered handsomely.

There were tears of joy from Willis after he was presented with the Beijing Olympic silver medal he inherited after men's 1500m winner Rashid Ramzi later tested positive for a blood-boosting drug, while more than $20,000 was raised for the Christchurch earthquake relief fund.

"It worked out perfectly," said an emotional Willis after capping the night by running 3min 58.37sec to win the men's mile.

After trailing his American training partners for much of the race, Willis powered down the home straight to beat Will Leer by just over a second with Brandon Bethke third in 4min 00.04sec, well down on Christensen's 10-year-old record of 3min 56.77sec.

"They saw how emotional it was [receiving my medal] and they said `Nick, we'll take it for you, we'll make sure you get your sub-four [minute mile]'. I felt terrible down the back straight but they took the wind for me," he said.

"It's so great to have the best in the world to train with and push me every day. It makes it so much easier to get to the top for London [Olympics next year]."

Not only did Leer help push Willis to his sub-four minute time but, through his major sponsor Nike, he also contributed $5000 to the relief fund.

Earlier, there had been a swell of national pride as Willis was given his silver medal by International Olympic Committee member Barry Maister. The moment was greeted by wild applause from a crowd which included deputy Prime Minister Bill English and his family, All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith and Hurricanes No 8 Victor Vito.

"I wouldn't have thought so many people would have known about this meet but they've all heard about it before I went to tell them. There's just been a fantastic response," Willis said.

Having been elevated from his original finishing position of third 18 months ago, the former Hutt Valley High School pupil said it was a relief to finally have the medal to show for it.

"It's been hard when I've gone on tours around schools and done public speaking appearances. The kids want to see the hardware, they don't care about hearing from me. They just want to touch a medal."

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- The Dominion Post

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