SPASH’s Willis sets U.S. freshman record in 800
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
Roisin Willis of Stevens Point set a United States freshman record in the 800-meter run, as she won the event at the New Balance National Indoor Meet in New York City last month.
A ninth-grader on the Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) girls track team, Willis finished with a time of 2:05.7 March 10, to break the previous high school freshman record of 2:06.48 and win the National Title in the 800.
“Going into the race, I wasn’t really sure how everything was going to play out,” said Willis. “And you just never know in the 800, things can go really differently than you want it to.
“It’s not all about records, it’s about racing people,” she said. “But it was really exciting to have a good race in New York City.”
“The fact that no freshman in our country has ever run as fast as she did in the 800, that just says it all right there,” said SPASH girls track co-head coach Nate Olson. “I think some of her teammates didn’t even realize the caliber she was at, until we showed the video.
“The announcers were talking about the American record holder in the 600 (Athing Mu), and then our teammate taking her down, then you saw the light bulb come on for some of these girls,” he said. “So that was really cool.”
Willis, the daughter of former Ireland 5,000-meter Olympic runner Breeda Willis, started her running career at a young age.
As an eighth-grader last year, her time in the 800 run would’ve been fast enough to win the WIAA Division 1 State Title in the event.
“My mom ran in the Sydney Olympics (in 2000), and I started running in second grade, but I did all kinds of sports in elementary school,” said Willis. “And I think around seventh grade I started running the 800 more, and each year I would drop a bit of time.
“And I think this year, I’ve made my biggest improvements,” she said. “But it’s been pretty gradual each year.”
“Her work ethic’s great,” said Olson. “I’ve been able to kind of help out and coach some with her mom, ever since Roisin was young and getting into track, I remember her with some of the (Stevens Point Area Running Club) meets.
“But she does all of the right things, she’s there at 6 a.m. all winter working out, and when it’s freezing outside, she’s out there,” he said. “She eats right, she’s a good student, and just a great kid.”
At the New Balance National Indoor Meet March 10, 16-year-old Athing Mu of Trenton, N.J., was looking to break Mary Slaney’s 880-yard world indoor record set in 1974, after she set the American indoor record in the 600-meter run two weeks earlier.
“She had an incredible season, and I looked up to her a ton,” said Willis. “And going into the race, I was like, ‘there’s no chance,’ because she’s done all of these things. And the announcers kind of put all of the attention on her.
“But it took some off of me, so I didn’t have as much pressure going into the race,” she said. “And the race played out in my favor.”
Mu led throughout the 800 at Nationals March 10, and remained in front of Willis on the final lap.
However, Willis pulled ahead of Mu after the final turn and went on to win the 800 run, as she set a U.S. freshman record with a time of 2:05.7 to finish ahead of Mu (2:05.86).
“It was kind of blurry in my mind, because it was just such a fast moment,” said Willis. “But she was slowing down, and I was just doing my kick, and I guess I just passed her.
“And you know, when I hit the finish line, I was just like, ‘oh my gosh,’ just trying to realize what just happened,” she said. “It’s definitely a special race in my mind, probably the best race I’ve ever had.
“But it’s the first step in a journey that hopefully will last a long time,” she said. “I hope to keep improving each year, so it’s just a start.”
“We were all with my family, just watching it in our kitchen on my computer and everybody was huddled around,” said Olson. “And we were all screaming, jumping up and down, because she was the underdog.
“Nobody was talking about her, they were all talking about Mu, and for her to kick her down, it was really exciting,” he said. “What a way to start the season, the first week into it.”
Willis followed with a class trip to Costa Rica over Spring Break, and returned to SPASH track practice last week.
She is set to run for the Panthers at the Wisconsin Valley Conference Indoor Meet at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Tuesday, April 9, as she looks to build off her performance in New York.
“I definitely like the high school environment more, because it’s more energetic and people are definitely more in it,” said Willis. “And I just like to actually run in Wisconsin, in my home state, but I think it just will be a really fun season.
“New York was pretty intense, and I’ll have a little less pressure for these next two months,” she said. “So I’m pretty excited to run at state and things like that.”
“The biggest thing with Roisin is her range, where she could potentially be the fastest girl in the conference, from the 100 all the way to the two-mile, and she could win basically any running event,” said Olson. “That’s the crazy part.
“Sometimes you get a person that can break a state record, like a two-miler that just can do that, but what she can do, it’s very rare,” he said. “You never see the range like she’s got, with her speed and then her stamina.
“But it’s nice to have a lull now for a little bit and not be up on the national stage,” he said. “We’re going to keep doing things right and putting her in different situations, giving her opportunities to learn.”