Above: New Zealand's Nick Willis finishing third in the Olympic 1500m. Photo FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
Nick Willis added the bronze medal to the silver medal won eight years ago in Beijing when he stormed home to claim third in the 1500m in Rio.
In an extremely slow run race it came down to who was the best over the final 400m. Willis ran wide in third position throughout most of the race and in the sprint to the finish he just headed in Ayanleh Souleiman, Abdalaati Iguider and three time world champion Asbel Kiprop for the bronze medal in 3:50.24. Matthew Centrowitz won in 3:50.00, from defending champion Taoufik Makhloufi 3:50.11.
Willis, the oldest athlete at 33 to win a medal in an Olympic 1500m said it was a different feeling this time to Beijing in 2008.
“It really doesn’t feel like that same amount of crazy joy that I had eight years ago it’s more just the satisfying that I proved to myself that I still had it in me,” he said.
“You’re never quite sure especially when you’re starting getting greys in your hair, but I guess I still do.”
He focussed on his game this time compared to London in 2012 where he finished ninth.
“I stayed away from social media for a month I just really wanted to get away from all the distractions and focus on how do I perfect the art form of the 1500m.
“It got very slow 2:15 I think through the 800m and I really wasn’t that confident in the warm up and the call room right before the start line I was like get your head in it, it’s the Olympic Games final do you really believe you can win and I thought I could sneak home for a bronze from the back but when the race slowed right down it gave me a chance to get myself in the game, I ran right at the front and it got my head back into it, like when I was at high school that competitive instinct.
Too often I get caught at the back and it’s really hard to start feeling the adrenaline so that paid off for me today.”
Rather than running on the pole at the rear Willis positioned himself on the outside this time.
“My support team my wife, my coach of 73 years of age Ron Warhurst, my dad everyone was drilling into me you’ve got to go wide so you get a clean run and that was the plan but when I got to 450m to go the only guys in front of me were the favourites so I knew that they were guys that could hold it all the way to the home straight and then it would pan out and thankfully it did. I gambled by trusting in the ability of those guys but they brought me home.”
Willis the 1500m bronze medallist at the World Indoor Championships in Oregon earlier this year said that he received inspiration from 1980 Moscow Olympic Games 800m gold medallist and bronze in the 1500m.
“The great Steve Ovett said to me two years ago, ‘you think too much Willis, stop thinking just race you bugger.’ So I think that helped out.”
Centrowitz said that he received inspiration from the great American runner Jim Ryun 1968 Mexica Olympic Games 1500m silver medallist.
“I got a text before my race from one of my idols Jim Ryun and that’s something I read a few times before I raced,” said Centrowitz.
An American last won an Olympic Games 1500m final in 1908.
“This is the greatest achievement in our sport something I’d been working so hard for, for so long and I don’t know if it will ever sink in, it’s just unbelievable right now,” he added.
Centrowitz’s father was a two time Olympian and which Matthew has recognised by having ‘Like father like son’ tattooed in his chest.
The previous oldest to win an Olympic Games 1500m medal was Kip Keino with a silver in 1972 at the age of 32.
Willis became the first New Zealander to win two medals in the prestigious Olympic 1500 and won the country’s seventh medal over the distance, a high return with only 16 athletes having represented New Zealand over the distance.
Rio has been a rich hunting ground for the New Zealand Athletics team, returning with four medals from four athletes, the highest number of athletes to bring home athletics medals from any previous Olympiad and equaling the haul of four medals from Tokyo in 1964.
Athletics New Zealand Correspondent