The injury that sidelined junior Nick Willis did more than just keep him off the trails — it put things into perspective.

The No. 23 Michigan men’s cross country team was slated for a top-five finish at the NCAA Championship this year, with returning All-Americans Nick Willis and Nate Brannen. But the hype began to fade away as Victor Gras, Andrew Ellerton and Willis suffered season-ending injuries.

The absence of Willis has hurt the most, as the Wolverines have seen their ranking drop from No. 6 to No. 23. Willis qualified for the semifinals in the 2004 Summer Olympics in the 1,500-meter run, and he missed out on automatic qualification for the finals by just one place.

The New Zealand native returned to Michigan midway through this season, following a rigorous training schedule that had him running 100 miles a week. A week after competing in pre-nationals in Terre Haute, Ind., on Oct. 16, Willis was informed that he would miss the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his femur. Willis will be the first to admit that he went a little overboard in his training following the Games.

“Missing out on that final got me really motivated and energetic,” Willis said. “I got in over my head from the Olympics and my training went overboard. I was feeling really good, I felt indestructible. I thought (the pain) was just a nerve.”

A long-term injury is usually a source of confusion and frustration for an athlete because his identity is so closely tied to his sport. But Willis has turned confusion into introspection.

“I’ve enjoyed my time off,” Willis said. “It’s put things into perspective. (The injury) has showed me that it’s just a sport, putting one foot in front of another. I can really enjoy it now instead of thinking of it as a job.”

Willis has taken advantage of his time off, becoming involved with Campus Crusade for Christ. His participation in the Christian group has given him a chance to look at the sport and see where he fits in.

“I had everything going totally right for me the past two years,” Willis said. “But the injury has opened a couple more windows. I went on the fall retreat with Campus Crusade and it solidified the fact that God works in mysterious ways and what happens is probably for the best.”

What is best for him may not exactly be the best for the team. The Wolverines will run at the NCAA Championships this Monday in Terre Haute without one of their top runners.

“It’s sad that I can’t be able to help the team,” Willis said. “It’s part of the reason I worked so hard to get back in shape after the Olympics.”

Willis will be out for two to three more months. Then he will decide whether or not he will return for the spring season.

 

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