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Athletics: Willis keeping eye on NZ 1500m Idol

Nick Willis hopes more Kiwi middle distance runners will join him on the start line in Rio. Photo / Getty Images
Nick Willis hopes more Kiwi middle distance runners will join him on the start line in Rio. Photo / Getty Images

Veteran middle distance runner Nick Willis is overseeing an unofficial New Zealand 1500m Idol in the United States, as Athletics New Zealand ponder who to nominate for Olympic selection in a blue riband track event.

With a New Zealand record of 3m 29.66s set in Monaco last July, Willis' place is secure. The IAAF and ANZ 'A' qualifying standard for Rio is 3m 36.20s. The 33-year-old's CV also boasts silver at the Beijing Games and bronze at the world indoor championships in March.

Julian Matthews (3m 36.14s), Hamish Carson (3m 36.25s) and Eric Speakman (3m 37.85s) are all contenders for a maximum of two other spots. The trio have trained with Willis at altitude in Arizona and in his adopted home state of Michigan.

Each set his best time at a race in Pennsylvania nine days ago.

Matthews has the edge because he is under the Olympic standard. Carson's time is under the ANZ 'B' mark of 3m 37.20s, while Speakman has until July 11 to improve on his personal best.

The performances prove there is promise beyond Willis. The 1500m has a pedigree in New Zealand Olympic history with Sir John Walker, Sir Peter Snell and Jack Lovelock earning gold medals.

"All three [of the contemporary trio] are likely to get the qualifying time, so it's potentially a nightmare for the selectors," Willis told Radio Sport. "Who will they pick? We've got four of the 13 fastest [1500m] runners in New Zealand history in action.

"Fortunately, I've already got my qualifying time, and I was the pace-maker for theirs, so they can't be complaining at me," he quipped.

Willis said they had emulated training guru Arthur Lydiard's coaching philosophy recently with a series of grinding workouts.

"I've been mentored and guided by my coach [Ron Warhurst] and older senior athletes, so I picked up on that with these younger guys.

"It's exciting but you can also feel the tension as we get closer to deadline. They're trying to help each other but realise they could be about to knock each other out."

Willis said it would be advantageous to have extra black singlets in Rio.

"It can be intimidating on your own. Imagine if one All Black had to do his pre-test warm-up in the locker room with the Wallabies. That's what it's like for me sometimes."

- NZ Herald

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