As Nick Willis and Nate Brannen have traveled to Oregon, Canada,
England, Croatia and Italy, one thing has become abundantly clear:
Qualifying for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, is not

“There’s a lot of luck involved in making the
Olympic team and the timing matters,” Michigan coach Ron
Warhurst said. “Everything has to be just right.”

For Willis, everything was just right on July 2 in Rome. At the
Golden Gala, he hit the Olympic ‘A’ standard in the
1,500 meters with a time of 3:32.68.

Willis, who received one of the few wild card entries, felt
fortunate to even be in the race.

“It was a really big relief,” Willis said. “I
knew once I got into the race it wouldn’t be too much of a
problem. I really didn’t have to do too much work. I just had
to get into the pack and get tagged along for the ride. I was
really lucky to get into the race.”

It was an especially big relief because Willis hit the necessary
time in his first race following the Norwich Union Super Grand Prix
on June 27. Willis was among the leaders in that race, but was
tripped up with just 350 meters left.

“I may have hit (the time),” Willis said. “It
would have been borderline. I was really frustrated for the entire
week after that. But, in the end, it worked out, so I suppose it
happened for a reason.”

Now, after more than a month on the road, bored by living in
hotels and “watching foreign TV,” Willis is glad to be
back home in Ann Arbor with his Olympic berth secured. Later this
month he will go to New Zealand’s training base in France and
will likely run in two races before the Olympics.

“He’s just two races from the Olympic finals,”
Warhurst said. “It’s really incredible. The
preliminaries, the semi-finals, and he’s there. He’ll
be able to do it too. The times won’t be too fast. He’s
just got to beat the others.”

Willis’ training partner, Brannen, also returned from Europe
last week. But he was still seeking an Olympic berth in the 800
meters. He hoped to get it yesterday at the Canadian Track and
Field Championships in Victoria, B.C., but his dreams may be on
hold for four years.

Brannen entered the weekend having to finish in the top four and
hit the Olympic ‘A’ standard of 1:45.71.

“I’m confident I’ll run well there and finish
in the top four at least,” Brannen said before the weekend.
“Hitting the standards is the tough part. It’s not easy
to go out there and run a 1.45 by myself. I’m going to need
someone to help me through the first 400 or 600. It just takes a
lot of energy to go out on my own from start to finish.”

Warhurst told Brannen that if the weather was good, he should
consider going for the time in the preliminary heat to get it over
with before the finals. While he did finish second in the heat,
Brannen’s time was just 1:49.84.

In the finals, Brannen’s worst fear came true. He came in
fourth place but struggled to keep up with the leaders and finished
with a time of 1:48.23.

Warhurst had hoped that with a top 4 finish and a time close to
the ‘A’ standard, Brannen could petition for additional
opportunities to hit the time. But, since he finished well short of
the time, it is unclear whether a petition is being planned.

For Brannen, what is most frustrating is the fact that the
first-place finisher in the race ran a fast time of 1:45.34, and he
was unable to keep up. Ever since an ankle injury about two months
ago, Brannen has had trouble getting back to his earlier form.

“I was really fit before the injury. I think I could have
run a 1:45 by myself at that point,” said Brannen, who has
been receiving treatments daily ever since. “Now, with this
nagging injury, I’ve just been a lot more down.”

Warhurst has tried to help Brannen keep his confidence up, but
it hasn’t been an easy task.

“When you’re limited to doing one thing in 1:45 and
you get three opportunities and you train six months for it, it can
be frustrating when your ankle is sore and it hurts and you just
can’t do it,” Warhurst said. “It’s just
been a real tough time for him.”

Andrew Ellerton, who did not redshirt the outdoor track season
as Willis and Brannen did, was in the same situation as Brannen
before and after the weekend. Ellerton finished in third place in
the 800 finals with a time of 1:47.68.

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