The Olympics are full of stories of athletes defying odds, defeating physical norms and pushing boundaries. It’s safe to say New Zealand track and field star Nick Willis checks those boxes.
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The 38-year-old will compete in his fifth Olympic Games in Tokyo, making him the first male track and field athlete from New Zealand to compete in five Olympic Games.
But it almost didn’t happen. The fastest 45 runners in the 1,500-meter race get to race in Tokyo, and Willis snuck in with the last possible spot.
Despite qualifying for New Zealand’s Olympic team, Willis’ prospects of running in Tokyo were in jeopardy when his time made him the 47th fastest — just on the outside looking in. But two higher ranking runners opted to compete in other events, paving the way for Willis, who competed collegiately for the University of Michigan, to make his record appearance.
The men’s 1,500m event begins Tuesday in Tokyo with the first three heats. The semifinal rounds are Thursday, while the final will take place Saturday night.
🇳🇿 OLYMPICS UPDATE 🇳🇿
NICK WILLIS @nickwillis IS GOING TO HIS 5TH-STRAIGHT (‼️) OLYMPICS!
The 2x Olympic medalist ageless wonder from New Zealand clinched the 45th-and-final qualifying spot to Tokyo in the 1500m!
STORY: https://t.co/75LArFY86x#GoBlue pic.twitter.com/5c1JXhcsNe
— Michigan Track & Field / Cross Country (@UMichTrack) July 2, 2021
While Willis will try to outrun his opponents this week, for the better part of his early life, he was also trying to outrun God. He lost his mother to cancer when he was just 4 years old, and for the next 20 years he sought to cover the pain in all sorts of ways. He wrote for SportGoMag that he thought success in running would bring him the happiness and pleasure he was seeking, and rid him of the anger that was stewing inside of him for years.
“All I had achieved was nothing compared to missing my mother, blaming God (if He even existed), for her unfair death,” Willis wrote. “In depression, I felt like I had nowhere else to go. I needed guidance and a direction with real purpose.
“Something started tapping on my heart, telling me that my mom was watching my life from Heaven. I tried to fight it off with more alcohol and late nights, but the knocking on my heart became louder and louder. This became impossible to deny. I knew God was chasing me, and had been for many years. I decided to finally stop running from Him.”
In October 2003, Willis made the decision that changed the trajectory of his life and his career.
“I asked Jesus to forgive me for my anger and disobedience towards God, and for all the people I had hurt along the way,” he wrote. “He came into my heart and swept me clean. All the anger and bitterness towards my mother’s death became healed, and I was ready to restart my life fresh.”
Willis made his Olympic debut a year later at the 2004 Athens Games. He won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Games and a bronze medal in 2016 in Rio, becoming the oldest to ever win a medal in the men’s 1,500m. He’ll look to add to that collection this week, and he’s got plenty of momentum heading into the race. This year he ran a mile in under four minutes for a record 19th straight year.
“It’s a little bit of an obscure record I suppose — someone made me aware of it a few years ago,” Willis told NZME at the time. “It’s been on my radar, a fun thing to aim for, to keep that streak going.”
Willis, who says that he’s a “Jesus follower” in his Twitter bio, recently posted a photo with some thoughts he had journaled and called the Tokyo Games “the final chapter” in his journey:
Going to use this time in Tokyo to reflect a little and document my thoughts. pic.twitter.com/QdL1lfypup
— Nick Willis (@nickwillis) July 29, 2021
He’ll be looking to add one more accolade to his storied career. He’ll be running with God, this time, instead of away from him.
“My life has changed forever, and I will never feel empty or unfulfilled again so long as I don’t put God on ‘call-waiting,'” he wrote for SportGoMag. “God is real, and He walks alongside me every day. He convicts me when I stray, and loves me when I’m lonely. But greatest of all, He has given me His promise that I will enter His Heavenly Kingdom, and celebrate with my mother and family, when my time here on earth is finished.
“Nothing I have done during my life has allowed me to deserve this. My selfish existence is proof that God can and wants to forgive everyone. We just have to ask.”
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