NEW YORK (20-Jan) -- Nick Willis's storybook Olympic year ended here last September when he outleaned Bernard Lagat to win his first Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile. Willis, 25, a New Zealander who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., will begin his 2009 campaign here at the 102nd Millrose Games on Jan. 30, and is looking for the same result in the meet's signature Wanamaker Mile. Lagat has won the Wanamaker six times and will be trying to tie Eamonn Coughlan's meet record of seven Wanamaker victories.
"I'm really, really exited to open my season here," Willis said on a conference call yesterday with the New York Track Writers. "My last race was also in New York City down Fifth Avenue, and Lagat and I had a tussle down the last 50 meters and I just pipped him on the line."
But running on the narrow, steeply banked, 145.5m track in Madison Square Garden is altogether a different challenge. Lagat, the smaller man of the two, has perfected his technique for making quick passes on the track's short straight-aways. Before last year's Wanamaker Mile, Willis's feet hadn't touched the Garden track until he was introduced by meet announcer Bob Hersh. He immediately sustained a slight injury.
"The only time they let us practice on the track is when we did the stride-out when they called our name," Willis recounted. "The steepness of the banks: I actually slightly twinged my plantar fascia in my foot during that one stride-out. I was worried; this was the start of my Olympic year. Do I pull out or do I quickly massage it out? During the national anthem I was leaning against my agent trying to massage the heck out of my foot."
In a four-man field, Willis finished a close third to Australian Craig Mottram in 3:58.14. He learned a lot about the track, saying that he wasn't in the right position towards the end of the race.
"It's really hard to pass," said Willis.
At last summer's Beijing Olympics, Willis out-kicked France's Mehdi Baala by 5/100ths of a second to take the bronze medal in the 1500m, New Zealand's first Olympic athletics medal in 32 years. For a country which produced great milers like John Walker, Rod Dixon and Peter Snell, that long medal drought was almost unbearable. Willis's achievement produced a surge of pride back home.
"I think it was very, very big," said Willis. "New Zealand has a rich tradition in the 1500m, especially, not just in track and field, but the 1500m. I was just a 17 year-old kid when I ran 4:01 for the mile, and they were hoping I would be the next one to bring New Zealand to the world miling stage. It's somewhat humbling to think that the simple feat of running can mean so much to so many people on the other side of the globe, but it's a great privilege."
While the Olympic medal was Willis's top achievement in 2008, it was by no means the only one of significance. In addition to his Fifth Avenue victory, Willis dropped his 1000m personal best to 2:16.93, and ran career best times for the mile both indoors (3:55.93) and outdoors (3:50.66). He finished second at the Prefontaine Classic in the mile (outkicked by Kenyan Shedrack Korir), and took third at the IAAF World Athletics Final at 1500m.
Willis is looking forward to even more success in 2009, continuing his partnership with his college coach, Ron Warhurst, the man whom he credits most for developing his talent.
"He's been huge," said Willis. "Probably the first main reason is opening my eyes to what I was capable of doing. I came over to the U.S. as a pretty wide-eyed foreigner thinking I'd like to win an NCAA title one day. He taught me with the benefit of endurance, cross country-type training I could really go way beyond what I ever thought was possible."
Canada's Nate Brannen, Willis's Michigan teammate and the 2006 Commonwealth Games 1500m silver medalist, continues to be his key training partner. But he's also training with former Ohio State miler Rob Myers and another former Michigan star, Andrew Ellerton of Canada, who specializes in the 800m.
Willis will have a brief indoor season. After the Millrose Games, he plans to run the mile at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games on Feb. 7, before heading to the Southern Hemisphere for three outdoor races in Melbourne; Petone, New Zealand (where he'll run a road mile); and Christchurch. "Some exciting new initiatives to promote the sport back home," said Willis.
Outdoors, Willis said he would "love to break 3:30" for the 1500m, but he's still more focused on winning races... and medals. At the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin next August, Willis would like to become New Zealand's first-ever 1500m medalist.
"More importantly is to win races," concluded Willis. "I'd much rather win a race in 3:30.5 than get third in 3:29. My goal is to win as many races as I can this year, including the World Championships."
PHOTO: Nick Willis narrowly beats Bernard Lagat at the 2008 Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile (photo by Jonathan Cooper).