U of M - Future Friday: Q&A with Nick Willis

U of M - Future Friday: Q&A with Nick Willis

Provided by U of M

Nick Willis

After representing the block M with pride while they competed for the Maize and Blue, our student-athlete alumni have gone off to become professionals in different areas of their lives. Whether they continued on in their sport, helped to build up a company or started a family, they are building a future. They are building our future. As they leave the University of Michigan campus they go forth with all they learned here to create a better future for us all.

Nick Willis is among the most decorated middle-distance athletes in Michigan history, and was recognized for his incredible accomplishments and contributions in Michigan track and field history with his induction into the men's program Hall of Fame this past October. Willis, along with nine other Wolverine athletes and coaches, became the first Hall of Fame Class to be inducted since 2012 and the first during the tenure of head coach Jerry Clayton. More meaningful than the honor itself was the recognition of being inducted with legendary coach Ron Warhurst, with whom Willis still trains to this day.

A three-year letterman (2003-05), Willis collected five All-America honors as a Wolverine, including one as an individual NCAA champion (2005, Mile). Willis also earned the title 'national champion' as a member of the storied 2004 Distance Medley Relay (DMR) NCAA championship team, which just had its 12-year-old program record broken last month. Overall, Willis collected six Big Ten titles, including three straight indoor 3,000-meter titles from 2003-05, before moving on to a professional career in the sport. That career has included an opportunity to represent his native New Zealand in a number of international competitions, highlighted by three Olympic Games so far (2004, 2008, 2012), which included a 1,500-meter silver medal in 2008 and the honor of serving as New Zealand team captain and flag bearer for his nation during the 2012 Games in London.

As he gears up for his fourth Olympics in Rio this coming summer, Willis continues to compete professionally for Adidas running. He set a (then) world-leading mile time last month at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix in Boston, Massachusetts, before a runner-up finish at the NYRR Millrose Games' famous Wanamaker Mile race in mid-February. With the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon, on the horizon (March 17-20), Willis is in peak training season, but still found the time to catch up with us, discussing his own career, the 2016 edition of the record-breaking DMR and the importance of the event in U-M track and field history.

Q. Your Hall of Fame induction last October was an emotional night for everyone involved. What made the night so special for you?

A.It's absolutely a huge honor. I was actually shocked and surprised that it would happen so early; I assumed that would happen when someone retires from the sport and I'm still competing, so it was a bit of a surprise, but it was really cool when I realized that they wanted to do it so that Nate (Brannen) and I could go in with Ron (Warhurst) at the same time.

To see generations of athletes from so many different eras being honored gave me a much greater appreciation for the program that I hadn't fully known before. The background stories that were told; you don't ever hear about that stuff or read about in formalized articles written about the athletes. That was really special to be a part of and emphasized how important of a role my time in Ann Arbor and my time at the University of Michigan has played in me becoming an adult and an international athlete.

Q. While you live and train in Ann Arbor for most of the year, you also make time to return to New Zealand with your wife, Sierra, and son, Lachlan, for a few months each year around the holidays. You've also been a proponent of athletes taking one day off each week from training, and other similar philosophies. Why do you feel that's important and how have you seen it benefit your own career?

A. I think, as is the case in all facets of life, it's important to have balance. You can't be all-or-nothing otherwise it's not sustainable in my opinion. Some area of your life is going to break down and it's going to have consequences, so it's important to me to have a life outside of my sport and it's important to make sure the people that I value and that are important to me, that I give them the time they deserve and that's my friends and my family. In return, they have supported me even more and that's given me added impetus and refreshment so that I can do what I need to do when it comes down to training hard each week.

Q. As doping scandals in the sport of track and field grab the attention of fans in the U.S. and internationally, you have been open in your views and suggested solutions to the issue. What led you to speak up and be a public leader in your sport, and do you feel the voices of athletes are being heard?

A. I'm actually a little bit surprised that the media has such an interest in my opinions. If anything, it shows that there aren't that many voices out there. They are looking for anyone to give them a quote because there aren't many athletes that really want to, because they either don't want to focus their time and energy on it, or there might be some repercussions from sponsors or someone else that might end up taking away their opportunities. Not many people are speaking, so as one of the elder statesmen of our sport I feel it's an important responsibility to try and leave the sport as best as I possibly can before my time comes at the end of my career.

Your opinion becomes affirmed more and more as you get older and that gives you more confidence that people actually do value what you have to say, so you become less timid and more willing to speak out when necessary. What I've realized is that you have to take a stand on some things in life; you can't just be lukewarm or on the fence. It's an important thing to do as a human, and I happen to be a track and field athlete, and that's a major issue going on with us at the moment.

Q. With the NCAA Championships coming next weekend (March 11-12), you must be excited about the return of a Michigan DMR to the national meet. For fans who may not have as much knowledge of that tradition, can you explain the significance of the DMR, and how it can be used to measure the current state of the program?

A. What the DMR represents is a range of coaching abilities. As the cross country and distance coach (Kevin Sullivan), you have to coach everywhere from 800 meters all the way up to 10,000 meters. The DMR draws upon the depth and range of the athletes' different types of abilities, from the mile all the way down to 400 meters.

In that way, it really establishes your program's name out there from a national perspective and that really helps with recruiting in the future. It allows you to sort of put your hand up and say 'we are a legitimate school'. It's your version of dominating the distance side of the sport during the track season once cross country season is over.

Q. As a member of the 2004 national championship DMR team, you not only helped set the program record at the time (9:27.77), which was broken last month, but you also won a national championship. What was your lasting memory from that experience?

A. There's something unique about being part of a team in that way. It's the only time I've ever celebrated during a race down the back straight. I think with 150 meters to go, I raised the baton to the crowd on the back straight, most of them Wolverine fans, and you'd never dream of doing that in an individual race because it would be deemed as cocky or arrogant or disrespectful to your competitors.

It was a joy going through that team experience saying 'We did this' while representing Michigan instead of ourselves. That's what members of football or basketball teams get to experience all of the time, feeling as if you're representing the block M, and not just yourself as an individual, which is what we often can be (doing) as track and field athletes.

Q. You are also an avid speedgolf player, with a top-10 finish at the 2015 Speedgolf World Championships. You came across the sport while researching legendary American miler Steve Scott, who also competed in speedgolf and on the track, years ago, and have stuck with the sport ever since. Why do you think it fits your personality so well?

A. It fits my personality really well because I don't have a huge attention span. I like to get up to try something, give it a go and call it a day. Five hours on a golf course isn't really something that I consider an enjoyable thing -- and I love golf. So here I've found a way to get it done in under an hour and have a blast doing it.

When I'm training I don't run (the course), I drive around in a cart, but I play either first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening when there's no one else around so nobody is able to get in my way. I enjoy action, and this is a way of turning golf into more of an action sport as opposed to more of a passive experience.

The 2015-16 academic year marks the 150th anniversary of Michigan Athletics. We invite the University of Michigan family to celebrate the passion that fuels us, rediscover the stories and traditions that unite us, and imagine what the future holds for us. We look forward to celebrating "This Michigan of Ours." To share a memory of Michigan Athletics, please fill out our online form or email [email protected]