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Ex-UM All-American Willis claims bronze in 1,500

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio de Janeiro — The notion hit Nick Willis not long after he turned 30. Right about the time he started debating in his own mind what would come next.

Willis, a former Michigan track All-American who still lives and trains in Ann Arbor, had been a professional runner for nearly a decade. And after a disappointing finish to his third Olympics in London in 2012 — a ninth-place output in the final — the proud New Zealand native started to think when others jokingly would ask when he was going to get a real job.

“But then two years ago, I thought, ‘I’m gonna stop worrying about that, because it’s just holding me back — I’m still improving,'” said Willis, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in his 1,500-meter specialty. “I might be 33, but I thought, ‘Screw the conventional wisdom and the supposed statistics that say your peak years are in your mid-20s, because I’m still improving.’”

And Saturday night, on the final evening of competition at Rio’s Olympic Stadium, he said it again — rather emphatically — using those 33-year-old legs and that veteran savvy, 11 years after he first turned pro. Willis avoided trouble in a pack near the end of a slow-paced, tactical race, then outkicked all but two others to the finish line in 3:50.24, edging Djibouti's Ayanleh Souleiman for the bronze medal by .05 seconds.

And in doing so, he became the oldest 1,500-meter medalist in Olympic history.

"A lot of people write you off in your 30s,” Willis said after the race. “This is for all the 30-year-olds."

American Matt Centrowitz won the race in 3:50.00, claiming the first U.S. gold in this signature Olympic track event since 1908, Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi, the defending Olympic champ, took the silver in 3:50.11.

“Doing my victory lap,” Centrowitz said, “I literally kept screaming to everyone I know, 'Are you kidding me?’”

For Willis, though, this was no joke. It was validation. And though he acknowledged it didn’t feel quite the same as his first Olympic medal eight years ago, that alone said something. Eight years between medals in the mile probably seems like an eternity to some.

“It's more just a satisfying, 'Yeah, I proved to myself I still had it in me,’” he told Sky Sports TV. “You're never quite sure when you start getting grays in your hair. But I guess I still do."