Four months from now, they’ll probably be walking into the
Olympic stadium in Athens, wearing the colors of their homeland in
front of a world audience. But right now, they’re just trying
to make it through finals.

Junior Nate Brannen and sophomore Nick Willis of the Michigan
men’s track and field team are just months (and fractions of
a second) away from being part of the 27th running of the modern
summer Olympic games. Brannen and Willis have both redshirted the
Michigan outdoor season to concentrate solely on getting ready for
Athens. Brannen is three tenths of a second off from qualifying for
the Canadian team in the 800-meter run, while Willis is a mere
tenth of a second away from qualifying in the 1,500-meter run for
New Zealand.

“It’s every kid’s dream to go to the
Olympics,” Brannen said. “It’s always been a
dream of mine. When I was in high school and I made the World
Championships, I really started to believe. I always saw 2008 as
the goal, but when I broke the Canadian high school record, it hit
me that 2004 was a real possibility.”

Brannen and Willis have been training together for the past
month, but soon they’ll begin to concentrate on their own
events. The runners will take their shots at the Olympic qualifying
standard this June when they travel out west to compete in the
Prefontaine Classic and some other elite Oregon meets. If either
doesn’t make the standard while out West, he will have to
travel to Europe for the last-chance meets.

“We’d really like to get the times out of the
way,” Willis said. “Then we’ll just get back to
Ann Arbor and our familiar surroundings.”

Once Brannen has hit the standard, he will have to place fourth
or better at the Canadian Track Championships.

They won’t be training alone though — they’ll
have plenty of help getting there. Former Olympians Kevin Sullivan
and Paul McMullen, as well as U.S. Indoor 3,000-meter record holder
Tim Broe will join them on Michigan’s track to train for the
Olympics themselves. Sullivan, a former Wolverine great, will try
to reclaim his spot that he held on the 2000 Canadian team in the
1,500-meter run. McMullen, a fierce competitor of Sullivan’s
when he was at Eastern Michigan, will try to grab one of the three
spots on the U.S. team in the 1,500-meter run.

All these runners will be Ann Arbor for one reason — Ron
Warhurst. The Michigan men’s track and cross country coach
has each runner’s personal training planned until the first
day of the Olympics, and he believes that Brannen’s and
Willis’s trips to the Olympics are not a matter of if, but
when.

“There’s no doubt that Nate will get his time within
a month,” Warhurst said. “And Nick is there already
… it’s only a matter of time with these guys —
each one is more than capable.”

Having such a strong training group at home gives Brannen and
Willis a huge edge in their training. They don’t have to
travel to a training center and train with a new coach. They will
get to live in their houses, train in a familiar environment and
prepare for the biggest sporting event in the world.

“What keeps me most motivated is knowing that 95 percent
of the population (of New Zealand) will be watching me,”
Willis said. “Here’s this little kid from Lower Hutt
competing against the world. That’s the real
motivator.”

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