The dedication of a selfless brother, the grit of a Vietnam war veteran and the humility generated by being passed by baby strollers on recovery runs are all helping Nick Willis focus on earning a second Olympic medal.

Willis is 68 days from running the 1500m heats at the London Games, the same event in which he was eventually awarded a silver medal from the Beijing Games. That ended a 32-year podium drought in arguably New Zealand's most famous Olympic event.

Having turned 29 last month, Willis says the last time he felt as fit and injury-free at this stage of the international season was in his early 20s. He also has a life balance. His family - wife Sierra, brother Steve and his wife and three daughters - surround him in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The campaign plan closely resembles that which brought Willis success four years ago.

Brother Steve was a catalyst behind that campaign which saw Willis triumph against the running might of east Africa. As a fellow four-minute miler - the pair are the only brothers to feature on New Zealand's 37-man list of sub-four-minute milers - these days, Steve Willis doubles as a track coach for Athletics New Zealand as well as working for Wellington community and school sports organisers Ignite.


His regular work is on hold for six months, having relocated his family to the United States to help his brother and fellow Kiwi athletes such as Nikki Hamblin, Adrian Blincoe, Hamish Carson and twins Jake and Zane Robertson. Willis will also continue to coach Paralympic gold medallist Tim Prendergast. He and his family are based in an apartment a 10-minute drive away from his brother so they can maintain some form of independence.

Steve Willis' filial dedication is unconditional. A couple of weeks ago, Nick had a 26km training run navigating trails around Ann Arbor; Steve was on a bike, locked to his brother's side in what is described as their "office".

That same commitment was evident at Beijing in 2008. In the wake of the 1500m final, Steve summed up what made their relationship special: "My role is to help him believe in himself. In our chats, a lot of times we totally disagree but in the calm before the storm [of the race], there's a real connection."

Nick Willis says there have since been some subtle changes in their partnership: "Last time, Steve was more hands-on because my usual coach Ron Warhurst couldn't travel much in his role at the University of Michigan. Plus I was younger and less confident. Steve is less of a taskmaster this time. His role is more observer.

"I encourage his wisdom. He'll subtly mention things; he doesn't talk off the cuff irrationally, he puts a lot of thought into his observations. I'm not as defensive and more secure. We have nowhere near as many barneys. I'm blessed to have such a support network. I'm the one on the track perfom- ing but we all share in the experience."

Willis continues to work closely with his former university track coach Warhurst. He says Warhurst's background as a Vietnam veteran - he volunteered for service in his mid-20s after completing a masters degree - keeps him grounded. Warhurst was a point man. That means he was assigned to walking in front of his platoon as a lookout. He has a fair idea of how to deal with pressure.

"He was a father figure to many of those young soldiers," Willis says. "You hear a lot of war stories travelling with him. Ron doesn't put up with any crap because he's seen far harder things in life and has a wealth of life experience to draw on.

"He's the perfect coach for me. I'm someone who needs to be pushed, so require a coach to be firm but give me a hard time. I have belief in myself and I'm not prone to getting depressed, whereas some athletes need an approach with more encouragement."


Warhurst has scaled back his university coaching commitments since Beijing, meaning he will travel with Willis to familiar haunts such as Monaco (where he broke the national 1500m record last year) and Italy (where Willis had a training camp).

Willis enjoys the anonymity of training in the US, especially when easing through recovery runs.

"The beauty of staying here is that you are out of the limelight. No one knows you're an Olympic medallist which is a bonus when you get passed by people with baby strollers," Willis laughs.

The Olympics are Willis' focus but he will work towards a mini-peak for the Prefontaine Classic mile in Oregon on June 2. It is a race where he has twice finished second but time is his priority. Willis set his personal best for the mile - 3m 51.66s - at the same meet in 2008. This year, he is aiming to go under 3m 50s, a feat Sir John Walker was the first person to achieve at Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1975. Walker still holds the New Zealand mile record of 3m 49.08s, set in Oslo in 1982. From the start of July until the Games, Willis will race two 800m and two 1500m races in Europe where he intends to turn his "fitness holding pattern" into "race fitness".