Nick Willis crossed the finish line in the Olympic semifinals
for the 1,500-meter run and knew immediately that he had not made
the finals.

He didn’t need the scoreboard to tell him that Kamal
Boulahfane from Algeria had sprinted by him just split seconds
before to take the fifth, and final, qualifying spot. He
didn’t need anyone to tell him that his heat ran the race a
full five seconds slower than the first heat and therefore
wouldn’t get one of the extra qualifying spots. And he
certainly didn’t need anyone to tell him that he had missed
his goal of qualifying for the Olympic finals by just one-fifth of
a second.

One-fifth of a second after almost a mile race.

Willis is a Michigan junior track star who holds the school
record for the 3,000-meter run. But he was running for his native
New Zealand in the Olympics and finished the semifinal race in
sixth place with a time of 3:41.46. The top five racers from each
heat, plus the next two overall, were able to advance to the
Olympic finals.

“This race was basically a sprint from 800 meters
out,” Willis said. “So, I ran a 1:48 for the last 800.
And I just got beat out. The three guys who were ahead of me got
first, third and fourth (in the finals). I was obviously pretty
disappointed right at the end, but, looking back on it, I was
pretty satisfied.”

After the race, Willis collapsed on the track, exhausted. He
spent the next few minutes curled up in the fetal position,
throwing up. It was a big change from the quarterfinal race two
days earlier.

“The first race went really well, and I couldn’t
believe how easy it felt,” Willis said. “I was just
smiling across the finish line and was thinking ‘Wow, this is
the Olympics. That wasn’t too bad.’ It gave me a lot of
confidence going into the semifinals, but then I didn’t
recover as well as I had expected.”

Willis was sick for the first three days of the Olympics. He had
a bacterial nasal infection that caused him to miss the opening
ceremony, forced him to miss a couple days of practice, and kept
him awake for a couple of days. Willis insisted that he was at full
strength by the time the racing began.

“The day we started racing, that’s when, for me, the
Olympics really started,” Willis said. “Just walking
out into the stadium was the biggest adrenaline rush. And then we
started having fun. I was feeling 110 percent. I just might have
been lacking a little bit of training. But my health was
fine.”

Willis missed some practice time in Athens, but he had worked
very hard the previous three weeks. At the end of July, he ran in a
race in Belgium and then went to Zurich, Switzerland, for another
race the next week. While in Belgium, Willis actually broke his
personal record in the 800-meter run with a time of 1:45.54. He
showed up to Athens feeling great, but he said that the 11 days
leading up to the race were very stressful, mostly because he was
sick.

After narrowly missing the finals, Willis said that he was
disappointed because his aim was to make the final. He said that
going into the race he thought he had a 50-50 chance of making
it.

“But I’m really happy with how it ended up, and I
think it will help me this year,” Willis said. “Now the
hunger is right there and I’m back in training again. If it
had gone extremely well, then I might have just been like,
‘That’s the end of that what is there to train for
now,’ you know.”

Willis took eight days off from racing and practice immediately
following the race. He spent the time enjoying Athens and
recovering from the stress of racing. He has since returned to Ann
Arbor and has spent the last week hanging out with the friends that
he hasn’t seen for a while and training once again. He said
that he’s going to take it easy getting back into cross
country season. Willis said that he will get back into an intense
training schedule, but will probably not compete again until the
Big Ten Championships at the end of October.

“Mentally, I need the break,” Willis said.

A break that was caused by and will certainly be longer than
one-fifth of a second.

 

Red, White and Blue

Nick Willis wasn’t the only Michigan track star, past or
present, to run in the Olympics. Here’s how the other
Wolverines fared.

Michigan alum Kevin Sullivan (1994-98) finished ninth while
running for Canada. His time in the 1,500-meter semifinal, 3:42.86,
was 1.5 seconds behind Willis. In the 2000 Olympics, Sullivan
managed a fifth place finish in the 1,500-meter run.

Tim Broe, a volunteer track coach at Michigan running for the
United States, qualified for the 5,000-meter final with the second
fastest time of his career (13:20.29). Broe, who was competing in
his first Olympics, finished 11th in the final.

Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco defeated all three Wolverines on
his way to becoming the first man since Paavo Nurmi in 1924 to win
both the 1,500-meter and the 5,000-meter runs. Coming into the
Olympics, El Guerrouj was considered the best middle-distance
runner never to win Olympic gold.

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