March 16, 2010

Full speed ahead to Olympics

MIKE LOWE

— By

click image to enlarge

Anna Willard poses next to a time clock with her American record winning time of 9:27.59 in the women's 3000 meter steeplechase final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., Thursday, July 3, 2008. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AP

click image to enlarge

Anna Willard goes over the last barrier to win the women's 3000 meter steeplechase final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., Thursday, July 3, 2008. Willard set an American record with a time of 9:27.59. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AP

Staff Writer

The conditions were perfect. The setting was perfect.

So Anna Willard ran the perfect race.

Willard, the 24-year-old Greenwood native, not only qualified for the U.S. Olympic track and field team, but also set an American record in winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase early Friday morning in the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Willard stayed close to the leaders for all of the race, then came from behind in the final 600 meters to take the lead on the next-to-last barrier and win the race in 9:27.59 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. She won by more than three seconds over second-place finisher Lindsey Anderson of Utah. Jennifer Barringer of Colorado rounded out the team that will go to Beijing.

The race ended sometime around 1 a.m. Friday.

''It was pretty special,'' said Mike McGuire, her coach. ''Physically and mentally, Anna was prepared for this race. Obviously she was facing great competition it was a perfect night to run the atmosphere was incredible all the ingredients were there.

''And when the race began, it was Anna being Anna.''

Willard, a 2002 graduate of Telstar High in Bethel, is the fifth Maine native who has qualified for the 2008 Summer Olympics, to be held in China beginning Aug. 8. She will compete on Aug. 15 at Beijing's National Stadium.

It will be the first women's steeplechase in Olympic history, a fact not lost on Willard after she finished. In speaking to reporters after her win, she said, ''It's pretty cool to be part of history. The Olympics is pretty cool alone. This is a pretty neat addition.''

Willard, who was unavailable for comment Friday, joins rowers Wyatt Allen of Portland, Anna Goodale of Camden and Elle Logan of Boothbay Harbor, and mountain biker Adam Craig of Exeter on this year's U.S. Olympic Team.

Not bad for someone who just took up the event four years ago.

Willard attended Brown University after high school and missed her sophomore season with an injury. The next year, Willard offered to take up the steeplechase when Brown's No. 1 steeplechaser was injured. She set the school record in her first race.

After Brown, she went to Michigan for graduate school and, with one year of eligibility remaining, took her performance to a national level. She now lives and trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a group of some of the best female distance runners in the nation.

''It's pretty impressive what she's done,'' said McGuire. ''Just look at her curve.''

Willard ran a 10:35 her first year, 10:06 her second, 9:34 her third and now has the U.S. record and is a U.S. Olympian. Willard found her latest feat quite unbelievable.

''To be on the Olympic team at all I can't even comprehend,'' she said after the race. ''Looking at how things were four years ago, I (stunk) four years ago.''

But, said McGuire, who was also her coach at Michigan, Willard had a natural talent to go along with an incredible work ethic and a strong desire to succeed.

Willard was seeded third entering the trials. After the semifinals last Monday, she had the fourth-best time. But McGuire said she was positioned to do well.

Knowing the competition, McGuire said Willard knew she would have to run fast to make the team. ''We definitely thought to win it, on a good night, it would possibly take an American record,'' he said.

The previous American record was 9:28.75.

Barringer took the lead and Willard stayed on her shoulder for the most part.

There was a pack of five runners before Willard took off at the water barrier, extending the gap with each stride. She didn't know she had set the American record, nor, she said, did she care.

''Tonight it had nothing to do with time,'' she said. ''I just wanted to be on the team.''

Actually, said McGuire, her goal was much higher: ''Anna didn't want to just make the (U.S.) team, she wanted to win it.''

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

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