IT ALMOST SEEMED A GIVEN that Roisin Willis (Stevens Point, Wisconsin) would destroy the High School Record for the 800. The 17-year-old senior has been on a hot streak, it seems, since well before the pandemic started.
Her stunning 2:00.06 win against a field of her elders in Boston took a whopping 1.72 off the national standard that New Yorker Sammy Watson set in ’17.
Willis (whose first name is pronounced “roe-sheen”), says of her frontrunning effort, “We knew that I was capable of running a good time. It was just a matter of me staying relaxed those first two laps. I felt confident taking the pace. It played out exactly how I would have wanted. I was able to run the first two laps comfortably, and then I was challenged on the last two laps.
“I think it was the best it could’ve played out. I was shocked that I ran that fast.”
It’s just the latest résumé line in a promising prep career. Willis has gotten plenty of attention for being the daughter of Irish 5/10K Olympian Breeda Dennehy Willis, but her father, Lee Willis, contributed some key genes as well. He took up serious running after playing basketball in college and notched some notable middle-distance times, 1:51 in the 800 and 3:48 in the 1500.
The pathway to the oval was a natural one for Roisin. “I did a lot of sports when I was younger; I tried a bunch of things I didn’t really like,” she explains. “My mom used to do road races back then, and I took a liking to it. It came naturally to me more than other sports did — I’m not very coordinated.
“I liked that running doesn’t take much time out of your day. Then my mom got into coaching, and she’s been my coach ever since.”
As an 8th-grader, Willis blipped the national radar with a 2:09.04. The next year, running for “SPASH” (Stevens Point Area Senior High), she hit bests of 54.67 and 2:04.86, winning the Brooks PR race in the latter.
In ’20, she ventured into the mile at the Millrose Games, running 4:49.63 before a 2:03.05 at Boston 3 weeks later. Then the pandemic shut down the rest of the season.
That brought her to the Olympic year, where her main focus was making the OT. The SPASH team didn’t get the green light until April. Before that, Willis trained mostly alone: “And once we did have a team, there would be other girls at practice, but all my workouts would be solo. That’s just the setup we have, but I’m excited for next year to have some teammates at Stanford to train with.”
The short school season and her chase for the Trials standard kept her appearances in her school uniform to a minimum. Finally, in a May meet at Randalls Island in New York City, she hit a 2:00.78 qualifier that also moved her to No. 4 among preps all-time.
That marked a meaningful accomplishment in her eyes. “I was running a lot of 800s and they weren’t going as planned. It was really frustrating. It was kind of my last go to make the Trials. If I didn’t make it, I still had time, but I knew mentally it would be too tough to try and go after it one more time.
“So it was a big breakthrough for me mentally and physically. That one was special, because there were some hardships before it.”
At the Trials, a 2:01.27 got her to the semis, where she finished 7th in 2:03.99. The season also brought improvements at both ends of her range, with clockings of 52.64 plus a 4:43.09+ mile.
Willis has explored that range in a variety of events this indoor campaign. At Virginia Beach she won both the 500 (1:10.90) and 1000 (2:43.34), topping rival/friend Sophie Gorriaran in both. Against the pros at Millrose, she placed 4th in 2:03.38, just ahead of Gorriaran’s 5th. That set the stage for the record clash. Then, a week after BU, she clocked a U.S.-leading 400 of 53.87 in Chicago, sans the Rhode Islander.
She notes that while she and Gorriaran don’t coordinate their races, “We just have similar ideas of how we want our seasons to go and we like to go to the same meets. It always benefits both of us because we both know that we’re going to go for it.”
Willis’s footprints are all over the all-time indoor lists. In addition to being No. 1 in the 800, she’s No. 4 in the 500 (1:10.90) & 600 (1:27.20) and No. 2 in the 1000 (2:41.53).
While her mom tended toward the longer distances, Willis says her focus on the 400–mile is no accident. “I started out in the sprints and they really tried to develop me in speed stuff first. I’ve done some distance training, but I think I’m always going to be in the middle-distance range. I don’t think long distance is something that I like very much. I would have to develop a different kind of mentality if I were to go into something like that.”
Nonetheless, she sees the 1500 as more in her future wheelhouse: “I definitely would like to run it more, but I’m going to work on my 400 and 800 as much as possible. I would be motivated to do the 1500 because running the 800 a lot can lead to a good future in the 15 as well. But I want to see how far I can get in the 800 before that.”
At this writing, Wills stands at No. 5 on the season’s world list, No. 1 among Americans. That obviously leads to the question of which World Championship meet she might aim for, the senior event in Eugene, or the Junior (U20) event in Cali, Colombia, a week later. The selection for both teams will take place the same June weekend in Eugene.
Says Willis, “That’s the big conversation around here. Right now, it’s World Juniors. But I’ve talked to my coaches and we’re just going to play it by ear and see how the season goes. I think I’d have to run a huge personal best and really make a big breakthrough to consider running for the senior team.
“Right now, I think competing against people my own age and going to World Juniors would be a fantastic opportunity and I’d be honored to be on that team.”
Overall, though, Willis’s theme for the outdoor season is quite simple: “Talking with the coaches at Stanford and my coaches here, the most important thing is to have fun and make sure it’s positive. I want to enjoy everything.”