Nick Willis Born 1983
Nick Willis carried on New Zealand's grand 1500m success at Olympic Games by earning the silver medal at Beijing in 2008.
Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and John Walker have all won Olympic 1500m gold medals, and John Davies and Rod Dixon have won bronze medals over the distance. It seemed for years as if those heady days were over until Willis came along.
Willis was born in Lower Hutt and attended Hutt Valley High School. He became the fastest New Zealand high school student over the mile when, in January 2001, he ran the distance in 4min 1.33s.
His running career really blossomed when he headed to the United States to take up an athletics scholarship at the University of Michigan. He thrived on the environment and over the next decade developed into a great runner.
In 2002, he finished fourth in the 1500m at the world junior track and field championships in Kingston, though New Zealand eyes at the time were on shot put gold medallist Valerie Adams.
In 2003 and 04 Willis represented New Zealand at the world cross-country championships, a branch of the sport at which Snell, Walker and Dixon had also shone.
By 2004 he was starting to make a name for himself internationally in the 1500m and he reached the semi-finals at the Athens Olympics that year, despite some health issues during the games.
At the 2005 world championships in Helsinki, Willis again reached the semi-final. New Zealanders knew he was good, but wondered if he had the ability to win medals in major races, especially given the incredible talent in African middle-distance running.
Willis went a long way to answering those doubters at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, when he ran commandingly to win the gold medal, following in the footsteps of Lovelock (1934) and Snell (1962), who had previously won Commonwealth (Empire) Games titles. Willis’ winning time in Melbourne was 3min 38.49s.
He built on that performance by reaching the final of the world championships in Osaka in 2007, finishing 10th. By 2008 he was a seasoned campaigner and he used all his experience to progress to the final of the Olympic 1500m in Beijing. He paced his races well and hugged the pole-line to ensure he covered the minimum distance required.
In the 1500m final Willis stayed at the back of the pack of runners for most of the race. Working his way through the field, he found himself in sixth place with 200m to go. Along the home straight he passed three runners, holding off Mehdi Baala on the line to claim the bronze medal in 3min 34.16s. With the November 18, 2009 disqualification of would-be winner Rashid Ramzi because of a positive drug test, that medal status was upgraded to a silver medal.
Willis began to run into injury problems and only just got himself to Delhi for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, having had knee surgery earlier in the year. Short of competitive racing, he was not at his best but acquitted himself commendably to win a 1500m bronze medal.
At the 2011 world champs in Daegu Willis had to struggle to reach the final as one of the fastest losers. He collapsed after his semi-final, suffering from dehydration. In the final he led for two laps but then slipped back through the field to finish 12th.
His brother, Steve Willis, is also an athlete, and they are the only New Zealand brothers to have both broken 4min for the mile. Willis is coached by Ron Warhurst, having previously been coached by Don Dalgliesh. He runs for the Reebok club.
His personal bests are: 800m: 1min 45.54s, Heusden-Zolder, 2004 1000m: 2min 16.93s, Gateshead, 2008 1500m: 3min 31.79s, Monaco, 2011 Mile: 3min 50.66s, Eugene, 2008 3000m: 7min 45.97s, Lausanne, 2005 5000m: 13min 27.54s. Sacramento, 2005
His 1500m time is a New Zealand record, bettering even the best mark of John Walker.
Willis was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Year honours lists in 2009.