It’s not hard to imagine returning to campus as a senior — most of us will be there at some point in the next three years — but imagine you’re 29, an Olympic silver medalist and married.
Welcome to Nick Willis’ life.
After an eight-year hiatus from school, Willis, a New Zealand native, decided to come back to the University.
“After the (London) Olympics, I figured it’s time to finally finish my undergraduate degree (in) economics,” Willis said.
Why such a long wait? Well, Willis turned professional after his junior year at Michigan with the experience of running at the 2004 Athens Olympics under his belt. He wanted to compete on the international level, and then-Michigan track coach Ron Warhurst, suggested he pursue his goal.
“When I first came to Michigan, I came with the hope and expectation to be able to represent my country, and it was in agreement with the coaches to allow me to do that,” Willis said. “(I turned professional) primarily because of the freedom it allowed me for competing against the best in the world. When you’re stuck within the NCAA calendar, it makes it very difficult to travel to go to the races. I reached a certain level in my competition — I went to the Olympics as a sophomore — I thought it was time to move up to the next level.”
Willis’ professional career began in 2005 when he immediately made an impact on the national scene by breaking New Zealand’s 32-year-old national record in the 1,500-meter run. A year later, he won the gold medal in the race at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
The Kiwi’s career took an even bigger step in 2008, where he took the silver medal in the 1,500-meter run at the Beijing Olympics in a time of 3:34.16. Willis said he didn’t expect to race so well in Beijing — his 13th-place finish in Athens put him under the radar for the 2008 Summer Games — so he was pleasantly surprised with the results.
His outstanding finish in 2008 made him one of the favorites for the 2012 London Olympics. A few days before the Opening Ceremony, Willis was announced as New Zealand’s flag bearer. He said the honor of leading his country’s delegation into the Olympic stadium matched stepping onto the podium to receive his medal in Beijing.
But in the 1,500-meter finals, Willis took ninth place, which was a sour way for him to wrap up his third Olympics, especially after the multiple opportunities he had to represent New Zealand, he said.
“I came in as one of the favorites, and I had some incredible experiences,” Willis said. “I got to be the flag bearer for my country, I got to meet the queen, but from a performance standpoint, it was extremely devastating. I didn’t perform the way I’m capable of, so it was a really, really trying and challenging time but also one as something I’ll hold on to as a unique memory.”
Though Willis will be 33 by the time the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, roll around, he said he still has plans to continue his career and hopefully return to the medal stand.
But for now, his career and the Olympics are on the back burner. Willis is simply focusing on finishing his education, which he said is a “fascinating experience.”
“When I was a student-athlete here, no matter how much focus I put in or determination to be a good student, I wasn’t emotionally connected with my studies,” he said. “You were really just clocking in and clocking out of class and just getting the task done. Now, with the Olympics over, I feel for the first time I get to experience what it’s like to be emotionally connected to be a proper student. It’s quite enjoyable, actually.”
Willis also ran the @umichstudents Twitter account for the first week of classes, tweeting about the many activities on campus and the lesser-known areas in Ann Arbor he likes to explore, such as areas around North Campus. He also mentioned on Twitter that he likes to participate in MRun, the University’s running club.
But re-acclimating to school it hasn’t necessarily been as easy as he’d thought, Willis said.
“I was so nervous for the first class,” Willis said. “It was environmental geography, and I was more nervous waiting 10 minutes before that class than the whole wait before walking in the Opening Ceremony with the flag.”