When runner Sean Moore walked in the door of his house Saturday, he was not surprised by teammate Nate Brannen’s cleaning efforts.

J. Brady McCollough
Nick Willis (left) and Nate Brannen will head to the NCAA Championships Wednesday to compete in the 1,500 and 800-meter runs, respectively. (SETH LOWER/Daily)

“He’s a cleanaholic – a neat freak,” sophomore Moore said. “I came home, and our whole house smelled like potpourri because Nate had dumped carpet cleaner all over and was vacuuming. He’s like Magda from “There’s Something about Mary” after she gets on the speed.”

“He kind of keeps us all in order,” roommate Kaj Johansson said. “He’s like the mom of the house.”

Brannen’s five roommates, who are all on the track team, say the sophomore is an ideal person to live with.

And while Brannen is busy cleaning up the house, freshman Nick Willis is busy cleaning up with the ladies. He’s famous on the team for his distinctive and sexy Kiwi accent.

“All the women love it,” Waits said.

But this pair has more in common than just their cleaning abilities – they share an exceptional talent for running and a strong friendship.

When Brannen crossed the finish line in first this past March to become the NCAA indoor track champion in the 800-meter run, Willis was jumping up and down on the sidelines, yelling and screaming to encourage his teammate.

“Nick was going crazy,” Michigan coach Ron Warhurst said. “He was like a real cheerleader. He was down on the track and being very, very boisterous.”

Three months later at the NCAA Mideast Regionals, Brannen watched closely, pressed against the fence separating Ohio State’s track from the bleachers, making sure Willis secured his ticket to the NCAA Outdoor Championships by winning the 1,500-meter run.

“They complement each other,” Warhurst said. “They feed off each other’s success and are happy for each other when one wins a race.”

Many would think that the two most accomplished Wolverines in Michigan’s track program today would be in a state of constant competition, always trying to top one another. However, this dynamic duo has worked side by side all year through the cross-country and indoor and outdoor track seasons to achieve a mountain of successes. Could these goals have been reached if one was not there to support the other? Perhaps, but these running sensations have obviously shown that “divide and conquer” is not the way they choose to play the game.

Foreigners in Our Midst

Although Brannen and Willis may represent the nationally-loved athletic program at Michigan, both have their hearts and homes elsewhere on the globe. Brannen hails from Ontario, Canada, while Willis comes from Lower Hutt, New Zealand.

“The (running) competition and the schooling are just much better in the States than in Canada,” Brannen said.

Ironically, Brannen didn’t start running until he hit high school.

“I used to play hockey actually,” Brannen said. “And then through connections with people I knew, I started going to the track club.”

Throughout high school, the sophomore racked up awards and records for his phenomenal running abilities, including becoming a three-time Ontario champion in the 1,500-meter run and two-time Ontario champion in the 800-meter run.

Willis got his start on the track at a much younger age.

“My brother is eight years older than me and he always did track, so I started when I was four years old,” Willis said.

According to Willis, there is never a shortage of beautiful places to run in New Zealand. In fact, one of the runner’s normal training courses goes right through one of the areas where “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed.

But when it came time to choose a university, Willis’ brother encouraged him to come to the United States.

“My brother actually went to a college in Colorado, Wesley College, and he was a Division II champion,” Willis said. “I chose Michigan because of the coaches – I knew Ron (Warhurst) would be a good coach for me and I knew I would get to run with Nate.”

Amaizin’ Blue Achievements

Since the boys arrived at Michigan, each has demonstrated his respective talents in the running domain.

After training together for two months in the summer of last year, Brannen and Willis ran together competitively for the first time on Michigan’s cross-country team in the fall. Often finishing one after the other, the pair led the team to an eighth place finish at the NCAA Championships.

“Nate helped in cross-country especially because we’re both pretty inexperienced for that event,” Willis said. “To keep your concentration for 10,000 meters is tough, but we had each other to run with. It doesn’t really bother me at all if he beats me, and I’m sure it doesn’t bother him if I beat him. “

During the indoor track season, both runners continued to flourish. Brannen became the Big Ten and NCAA champion in the 800-meter run, while. Willis was named Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year and won the 3000-meter run at the Big Ten Championships. Brannen and Willis also became the fifth and sixth Wolverines ever to run a sub-four minute mile, respectively.

“I think with Nick here this year, it’s really helped both of us achieve what we’ve wanted to,” said Brannen about his step up in achievements from last year. “I felt like when (All-American Alan) Webb was here, we were just racing each other. But this year with Willis, we’re really working together and pulling each other along.”

The outdoor track season has also treated the two favorably. Brannen won the 800-meter run at the Big Ten Championships, and Willis secured the 1,500-meter title at the same event. Just last weekend, both qualified with their 800-meter (Brannen) and 1,500-meter (Willis) times to earn spots at the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships, which start Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif.

“They’re both very competitive and they’re not afraid to race people,” Warhurst said. “Racing at this level, you have to be very strong emotionally and mentally. You have to have a tremendous desire or you’ll just fall by the wayside.”

Although Brannen and Willis usually cross the finish line with similar times, Willis explained that each has his own unique way of getting there.

“We’re totally different runners,” Willis said. “Nate’s got a lot more explosive speed than I do. He’s stronger than me, yet I’m bigger and have a bit more endurance – but we pretty much come out the same in our races.”

The runners don’t rely on only natural ability to achieve such fast times. Warhurst said both run between 45 and 55 miles a week during cross-country. That mileage is intensified during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, increasing to 75-80 miles a week.

Having already achieved a lot at Michigan, both runners serve as role models for their teammates.

“Having Nate and Nick on the team does nothing but make everyone better,” sophomore Seth Waits said.

According to Warhurst and other teammates, neither runner lets success go to his head.

“Nate and Nick do a great job of handling their success,” Waits said. “Great runners don’t need to talk about how fast they can run – they just show it.”

“I actually look down to him,” said 6-foot-2 teammate Kaj Johansson jokingly about 5-foot-9 Brannen, “No, I actually look up to him on the track – he just acts like another guy on the team.”

Off the track, Brannen and Willis are close friends and teammates describe them as “great guys to be around.”

“We can go hang out and we have a great friendship between us that makes it a lot easier on the track,” Brannen said.

Future Gold Medalists?

This Wednesday, Brannen and Willis will fly to Sacramento and compete in the NCAA Outdoor Track Championships. Brannen will compete in the 800-meter run, and Willis will take part in the 1,500 meter run. Both want to win, but Willis – who has yet to win an NCAA championship – stressed that he would be content even if he didn’t come in first.

If Brannen wins in the 800-meter run, it will be his second NCAA Championship title, as he already holds the indoor title.

But the runners are looking farther ahead than just the nationals for their next goal. Shortly after returning from Sacramento, Brannen and Willis will head to Europe for two weeks and try to achieve qualifying times set by their respective countries for the 2004 Olympics. Warhurst and the runners believe they have a good shot.

“Nate will probably run the 800,” Warhurst said. “And then if Nick runs 3:36, he’ll probably get chosen for the 1,500.”

“It’s a dream of mine,” said Willis about going to the Olympics. “New Zealand has had three world record holders and Olympic gold medalists in the 1,500. I don’t know if it’s whether I feel it’s my responsibility, but I’d certainly like to keep the tradition going if I’m able to.”

Brannen also dreams of one day earning a gold medal in the Olympics for Canada, and said that he doesn’t think this goal is too big for him to achieve.

“You set goals and once you achieve them, the goals don’t seem as big as they were before,” Brannen said. “Thinking about it beforehand, you think, ‘Wow, that’d be really amazing to accomplish,’ but once you do, it’s just another thing. My goals just keep getting higher and higher.”

Brannen and Willis may be celebrities in the track world, but off the field they are just normal college students, trying to enjoy their time at Michigan.

“They’re just like the rest of us, they just have a different mentality,” Moore said. “They have to pick their times to have fun and when not to – they understand that getting out and doing things is important though. It’s part of college.”

For all of their achievements on the track, Brannen and Willis still strive in their everyday endeavors.

After all, the duo boasts something any college man would kill for – a clean house and a babe-magnet accent.

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