Nick Willis, the Michigan All-American track star and Kiwi native, was supposed to be receiving his long overdue 2008 Olympic silver medal Saturday while competing at a meet in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Tuesday’s tragic 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch shattered that plan. But Willis improvised a new one -- organizing a meet in Wellington to serve as a fundraiser for quake victims. Early Friday reports from New Zealand put the death toll at 103 with more than 200 still listed as missing. Damage estimates have reached $12 billion.
“My training partners and I were fit, and ready to race, so we thought the best thing we could do to help out the cause was to still race, but in Wellington, and use it as an opportunity to raise awareness for the direct need in Christchurch, and to raise funds,” Willis said. “Other local athletics administrators also got behind the idea, and within 24 hours, we had organized the Track Meet 4 Christchurch.”
Willis is no race director, just a talented 27-year-old who logs more than 100 miles a week and is known for his fast finish. But he sifted through all the paperwork as elite athletes from around the world, including Alan Webb, the U.S. record-holder in the mile, flooded organizers with entry forms.
Willis will also receive his Olympic silver medal before the meet. He had won the bronze for the 1,500 meters in Beijing, but was awarded the silver the following year after gold-medal winner Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain tested positive for doping. The New Zealand Olympic Committee has been in possession of the silver since mid-2010, but Willis, proud of his heritage, waited patiently for it to be presented in front of his home fans. (He lives in Ann Arbor now.)
Willis, who had been scheduled to fly from Wellington to Christchurch on Wednesday morning, learned of the quake on the radio while driving to the track with his wife and four training partners.
“Thankfully all family members on my stepmother’s side are safe, but one of the family's houses has been completely demolished,” Willis said. “The same applies to my sister-in-law’s family. I have many friends whose houses have been demolished, but have not heard of any major injuries or deaths yet, but there are still 225 people missing.”
While Willis was safe in Wellington, many athletes already in Christchurch were caught up in the catastrophe. Yukiko Akaba, the winner of this year’s Osaka Women’s International Marathon, was training with her coach and husband Shuhei Akaba at the time of the earthquake, and he gave this account:
“The shaking was so strong that we couldn’t stand up in our rooms, and the ground outside was like a liquid. There was a big crack in the road surface just outside our hotel too. The main roads are flooded full of muddy water. There have been a lot of aftershocks, two or three of them almost as big as the first one.”
Click here to donate to the Canterbury Earthquake Appeal.
-- Jo Ankier is a track and field athlete who was the previous British record holder in the 1500m and 3000m steeplechase. Ankier has been a sports reporter for ESPN International and Fox Soccer Channel. Follow her on Twitter @joankier1.