The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist has a string of medals and records from his long career, including a gold medal won at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006.
The New Zealander took third place to win the 1500 metres bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 to add to his Silver from the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
At just seventeen years old Nick ran a 4:01 mile, and set his personal best of 3:49:83 in 2014. He excels at the 1500 metres and has a list of medals and records over both imperial and metric miles. He is the current national record holder with a time of 3:29:66.
As a student, Nick says he drank almost as much as he ran, but his older brother Steve introduced him to the Christian group Athletes in Action. Becoming a Christian has dramatically changed his life, including his motivation for running. Nick says,
“Before I embraced my understanding of God and actually formed a relationship with him, my whole motivation for becoming a great athlete was to be significant to my peers. Once I understood who I was in God, how he created me to love me for who I am and not for what I do, that freed me from a lot of those empty, non-sustaining motives for doing my sport.”
Born in Wellington, Willis won an athletics scholarship to the University of Michigan in the USA. Nick and his brother Steve both excelled at athletics and they are the only brothers in the history of New Zealand to have both broken 4:00 minutes for the mile.
Commonwealth Gold and Olympic Silver
Nick became the fastest ever New Zealand high school student over the mile in January 2001, with a time of 4 minutes 1.33 seconds. In 2005 he broke John Walker’s 32-year-old 1500 metres record at the Golden League series in Paris. He then won the 1500 metres gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in 3:38.49 minutes, followed by two first placings at the New Zealand Track & Field Championships in 2006 and 2008.
2008 was a particularly great year for Nick, winning the 1500m silver medal in the summer Olympics in Beijing. He finished the 2008 season, by winning the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York beating twice World Champion Bernhard Lagat. Willis was the fastest New Zealander to win the race since legendary the New Zealand miler John Walker in 1984.
In July 2012 Nick broke the Oceania 1500m record in a time of 3:30.35. Unfortunately he peaked a few weeks early and came an uncharacteristic ninth in the Olympic 1500m final in London. But 2014 would be another special year. Over 66 days, Nick ran his best ever times over four distances. He began on 15th May with a time of 13 minutes 20.33 seconds over 5000 metres. On June 11, he became only the second New Zealander (after John Walker) to break 3 minutes 50 seconds over a mile when he finished second at the Bislett Games. Six days later he broke Walker’s 31-year-old record for the 3000 metres at Ostava in the Czech Republic, in a time of 7 minutes 36.91 seconds. Then on July 20 in Monaco, he lowered the New Zealand 1500 metres record yet again to 3 minutes 29.91 seconds.
In early 2016 Willis won a bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships. He qualified for his third successive 1500m Olympic final, finishing third for the bronze medal.
Nick gives thanks to God for his success in athletics. Although he already had a natural talent, it was only the motivation that came with his commitment to Christ that turned him into a champion.
1500 metres medals:
2006 Commonwealth Games, Melbourne: Gold
2006 World Cup, Athens: Silver
2008 Olympic Games, Beijing: Silver
2010 Commonwealth Games, Delhi: Bronze
2014 Commonwealth Games, Glasgow: Bronze
2016 World Indoor Championships, Portland: Bronze
2016 Olympic Games, Rio: Bronze
Personal best times:
800 metres: 1:45.54
1500 metres: 3:29.66 (Oceanian record)
3000 metres: 7:36.91
5000 metres: 13:20.33
Story by Ralph Burden