Rio Olympics 2016: An Olympic journey for parents too

By Dale Budge

Nick Willis during the IAAF World Indoor Championships. Photo / Getty Images
Nick Willis during the IAAF World Indoor Championships. Photo / Getty Images

In the moments before the start of the 1,500 metres at the Rio Olympics Kiwi middle distance runner Nick Willis will call upon his experience of three previous trips to the Olympics to help steady his nerves.

At the same time, sitting in the stands watching, his father Richard Willis will do the same.
Willis senior has been on-hand to watch his son compete at all of his major races throughout a long and distinguished career.

"I have been to three Commonwealth Games, three Olympics, four World Championships, a World Juniors and I am about to go to my fourth Olympics," Richard Willis tells nzherald.co.nz.

"I have also been to quite a few Diamond League meets so I have been very lucky. I never dreamed I would be able to spend so much money following my son around.

"It has been a great opportunity to travel places you otherwise wouldn't go to.

I went to Moscow, Delhi, Kingston in Jamaica and some of the more unusual places, which is always interesting."

Watching your child compete in a pressure cooker environment of the Olympics is not easy and the nerves before and during the race are felt by more than just the athlete.

"They are the most harrowing experiences of my life," Richard says.

The reward at the end is often worth the gut-wrenching times however - like Melbourne 2006 when Nick Willis won Commonwealth gold or at Beijing in 2008 when he claimed a bronze medal that would later get upgraded to silver after a competitor tested positive for PEDs.

"It [watching him succeed in person] is just very rewarding for him. You see how much effort he puts in and it is nice for him. It is very gratifying when you see the reward for the effort."

Sometimes the result isn't good however and that is tough on father and son alike. Richard Willis needs only to go back four years ago to the London Olympics to know what failure feels like.

"He had peaked in Monaco at the Diamond League meet before the Olympics and broken the New Zealand record and then in hindsight probably that was too close to the Olympics. Then he was flagbearer and felt an obligation to go to everyone else's events and he probably wore himself out and he ran out of legs in the final. Everyone was disappointed by none more so than Nick himself.

"We went to lunch in London with him the next day and it was a fairly sad and quiet affair but he bounces back."

The experience of being there in person to watch isn't quite what you might think. You are just one person in a very large stadium and at the Olympic Games the best you can hope for is to wave out to the athlete.

"The Olympics is probably a little more distant because you don't get to see your family member hardly at all. In Beijing all we did was meet up afterwards and have a celebratory meal because I am staying somewhere and he was in the Village.

"Commonwealth Games and World Champs is more intimate and you get to see a bit more.

"The highlight was probably when Nick won his gold medal in Melbourne in 2006 and we were all there as a family. Afterwards my brother had an apartment in the middle of Melbourne and when Nick came around in his victory lap we shoved a piece of paper in his hand with the address on it.

"After he finished his interviews and medal ceremony he came in his sweaty gear in a taxi and we had this massive party going on. That was a wonderful experience. That felt intimate. Commonwealth Games are a bit more like that."

Nick's two siblings have both represented New Zealand at sport and Richard says they have a family motto.

"We have a family saying of "give it the death," which means give it everything and don't leave anything out there. If we are sending him a message it is always "give it the death."

Richard Willis will be there at Rio when son Nick takes to the track. He will ride the wave of emotions from the grandstand and he will feel the joy or agony at the end of the race, just like the athletes. He might even be as worn out too.

- NZ Herald

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