Chasing the Olympic Dream: Roisin Willis
By: Carlos Fernandes II
The last of the three high school girls in our "Future" series to run the Olympic Trials Standard was Roisin Willis, who ran the fastest time of the three, 2:00.78 at the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier on May 21st. The race is absolutely amazing. With 100m left in the race, Willis goes to the arms, giving everything she has to overtake Whittaker for the win, a new PR, and walking away with an OTQ. Her post race interview shows just how much this moment meant to her.
Who is She?
Willis is the daughter of two running parents. Her mother, Breeda Dennehy-Willis, is an Olympian from Ireland, who immigrated to the USA by running a fast 800m time that got her into college. She eventually became a 5,000m and 10,000m specialist and competed in both events at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now her daughter is chasing after an Olympic dream of her own.
The Wisconsin native grew up running USATF youth meets at 8 years old, but admits that she really fell in love with running in middle school.
Willis began our interview by saying how quality meets will just pop up now because of covid and then she’ll just go out and race. As a result, she has to always be sharp and ready to race at a moment’s notice.
However, her training week can consist of two easy days of 4-6 miles, a day with tempo 200m and 400m for endurance, a pure speed day of either fly 30m, 150m, or a speed ladder. Some weeks are more distance focused with Willis doing 800m and 1000m repeats and other weeks are more mid-distance focused with hard 400m or 300m repeats. She doesn’t stick to one specific type of training, but instead her mother and her high school coach are always adjusting and adapting her training in order to make sure she’s getting the most out of the training. I see this as a huge reason to why she’s doing so well as she’s not just focusing on one area of training, but instead focusing on all areas. This way she’s constantly strengthening her weaknesses and growing as a complete, well rounded runner.
While her high school coach is the one at practice, conducting the workouts for Willis, her parents are the masterminds behind her success. It can be tough having your parents as your coaches as the lines between coach and parent can easily be blurred into one another, yet Willis loves that her parents are also her coaches.
For Willis, her parents also being her coaches is a huge advantage:
“In situations while I’m going to high profile meets, I feel like it’s the best thing [to have my coaches also be my parents] because they can see me all day, see how I’m feeling, and see me when I come home from practice and see how I’m doing emotionally and they can examine training that way.”
She also emphasized that, “My relationship with my parents is not all running. They’re very involved, but I can have a conversation with them that’s not about running.” While toeing the line between parent and coach can be tricky, it seems like Willis’ parents are doing a great job!
Covid Uncertainty Transformed into Olympic Trials Certainty
At the start of 2020, Willis had her eyes set on going for a national indoor title. She was fit and, in her words, “ready to do something great.” However, covid cancelled all the end of season indoor meets and Willis elected to take a week off of training. She relaxed, recovered, and reset as she finished the week off ready to dive into a big training cycle.
During this cycle she ran a few time trials where she hit marks of 53 in a 400m, 4:48 in a 1600m, and 2:06 in an 800m. However, during this training cycle, doubt and questioning started to creep in. Willis explained that she didn’t have a cross country season in the fall, she didn’t know what next year would look like, so with all the uncertainty in the air, it was getting tough to rationalize why she was training because she had nothing really to shoot for. What got her through these 7-8 months of training was her focus on growing herself mentally. She took time while she was training to really dive into why she was training and to strengthen her desire. Her ultimate goal was to make it to the Olympic Trials, so she etched this goal in her mind and called on it whenever doubt was attempting to creep in.
To start off her 2021 season, Willis ran against Whittaker and Gorriaran in the 800m at the Virginia Showcase this past January. She finished third to Whittaker and Gorriaran, with a time of 2:04.31, only under 2 seconds from qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Her next attempt at the Olympic Trials Qualifying (OTQ) time came at the Trials of Miles Texas Qualifier on February 27th, where she won with a time of 2:03.85. Now only 1.5 seconds stood in her way from toeing the line at the Olympic Trials.
At this point, Willis was sure she would qualify and only needed the right opportunity in a fast race. She made plans to travel to California for a big high school invitational, however, her plans fell through. The next opportunity she got to go after the OTQ mark came in Illinois at the Distance Night at Palestine meet on May 8th. Here she finished 2nd to a freshman with a time of 2:04.44, slower than all her previous races this season.
The Break Through
“Coming into [the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier] there was a lot of pressure because if I don’t run this time here, then I’d need to re-evaluate my goals for the rest of the year. I was nervous the stress would get to me on race day because a few times at practice the stress kinda got to me and some days weren’t great, but I just told myself ‘you’re in great shape, just hold on.’”
Arriving into NYC, Willis got lost in the city and everything going on around her, which helped lower her nerves going into the race. She was still nervous as this was probably her last chance to be in a strong field of women where she would be given the perfect conditions to achieve the OTQ mark.
The weather was cool, the stadium filled with fans, and the track littered with her two fast high school peers and professional 800m runners. All had one thing on their mind when they stepped to the line, punching their ticket to the Olympic Trials.
“When I stepped on to the track, my mind was clear and I just told myself, ‘you gotta go out there and do it.”
The hip number 1 on her right chest foreshadowed the amazing race that was about to unfold for Willis. With 350m to go, Juliette Whittaker made a move for the lead and Willis went with her. With 75m to go, Willis went to the arms and willed herself across the line in first place with a time of 2:00.78, punching her ticket to the Olympic Trials with a time almost 2 seconds under the OTQ mark.
“With that last lap I was just trying to stick with the leader. My mentality is always that if you’re in second or third coming into the homestretch, just kick. That’s my favorite move to make. It’s awesome!”
Leading up to the race her dad gave her some encouragement as he reflected on how it’s been a rough year and how she should get angry and let her anger out on the track. For her the race had played out how she had envisioned it would going in, so she felt like she was prepared for this moment.
Readying the Mind
As one of the top high schoolers in the nation, Willis often competes against women who are 5-10 years older than her. Most people would probably be terrified and extremely nervous going up against older, more experienced competition, but when I asked her how she gets mentally ready for races with these quality fields, she said:
“Lining up to those pro races is honestly easier than lining up to a field full of high schoolers because I don’t have the pressure on me and I don’t feel responsible for making that race or taking the pace. I don’t really think about what all these women have done. It’s today. I’m where I’m at. There where they’re at.”
In one hand this makes a lot of sense. When you are being compared to your peers, the pressure is elevated because when you’re one of the best high schoolers in the nation, you’re expected to always win. However, no one is going to compare a high schooler to a pro and expect the high schooler to demolish a pro. There’s definitely more pressure being placed on the pros to not get beaten by a high schooler.
This confidence Willis has when she steps up to the line to race can be boiled down to, “Having a lot of race experience. If you can just get out there and do it and don’t think, that helps. I think back [before I race], I’ve done [this] before, so I can line up and rise to the challenge [today].”
When I asked Willis if she does race visualization before races, she told me she’s been doing it her whole life. She’s always thinking about race strategies and in practice when she’s running reps on the track, she visualizes competitors around her. For her, visualization is just a natural part of running that comes with being a competitor. However, she said that for some races she’ll get a little more intense and, “imagine what the feelings, the smells” will be like on race day to “get [her] mind right.”
College or Professional Route
Willis doesn’t seem to be considering the professional route yet. She believes that college is the right option for her for a few factors. First, she believes that there are a lot of highly experienced coaches at the collegiately level that she’s looking forward to meeting once the recruiting window opens up for her. Second, she wants to go somewhere where she’ll get a good education. Third, the team and facilities colleges provide is an experience she cherishes. For Willis, all the things she values most can be found through going through the college experience, so she has no current desire to go professional before attending college.
Message for Other Athletes
“I’ve gone after this standard four, five times and the last two attempts before this one were kinda tough.”
Willis recalls going after the OTQ mark at an indoor meet in Chicago. They race organizers got the start line wrong and she ended up running 15 extra meters. She ended up running 2:04 for 815m, and her 800m time was under the OTQ mark. This was a big disappointment for her as she knew she’d run a qualifying mark, but that it wouldn’t count.
She then failed to get the OTQ mark at the Distance Night at Palestine, losing to a younger high schooler. She failed three more times, furthering her disappointment. However, this is what she had to say to anyone that’s experienced failure after failure like she did before she finally broke through at the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier:
“To anyone struggling with a goal, just stick with it. There are days that were really really tough and chasing a time standard is really hard, so just stick with it. If you’re really passionate about something, don’t give up on it because this feeling of what Friday night was like is just like cloud 9. After going through all that, that race meant so so much. It’s all worth it when it finally comes together.”