A singular talent has achieved a singular goal.
And at the callow age of 16.
Ever since Roisin Willis of Stevens Point sauntered onto the Memorial Stadium track in La Crosse in 2019 as a freshman and proceeded to completely dismantle every idea of what a really, really good prep girls runner could do at any distance with her complete destruction of Camille Davre of Whitefish Bay’s 800-meter mark, we Wisconsin track fans have been wondering what she would do next.
We were denied her potentially greater 2020 season due to the COVID pandemic and that was not all we lost in state track that year. I think, as do many others, that 2019 100 and 200 champ Amari Brown of Milwaukee King would have taken a serious swipe at possible Olympian Dezerea Bryant of Bradley Tech’s now legendary 2011 marks in both those races.
It would have been so cool to see Brown try, but I digress.
And now it turns out we will be denied the still inestimable talents of Ms. Willis in La Crosse once again in this her junior year. The WIAA state meet will be staying in La Crosse in 2021, running from June 24-26. Spread over three days with one class a day and run a little bit like a state swim meet, with everybody getting just one chance to make their mark (even the sprinters, hurdlers and relay runners) it will be fun to see how everyone has coped with the fallout of the pandemic and the shortened season.
Not to worry, nothing bad has happened to the extraordinary Ms. Willis. She is not injured, ill, nor has she has failed to turn in a paper and she is certainly not having an impossible to conceive of bad season.
Quite the opposite in fact.
I would argue, and probably wouldn’t get much disagreement from wise people right now, that at the moment this ridiculously talented, amazingly focused teenager may have the most upside of any female track athlete at ANY distance in Wisconsin track history.
Because instead of being in La Crosse June 24-26, shattering, likely for all time, WIAA state 800 and 1,600 records, or if she felt curious trying to obliterate the long-striding and versatile Brooke Jaworski of Wausau West’s 400 mark, she will be at the US Olympic Track Trials in Eugene, Oregon, trying to make the American team in the 800.
A team that will represent America in Japan this summer at the hope to be completed Tokyo Olympics.
Yes, those Olympics!
Willis earned her opportunity on May 21 when she entered rarified territory for teenage middle distance runners as she turned in a preposterous 2:00.78 to win her section of the 800 at the Trials of Miles New York City Olympic Trials qualifier, well under the 2:02.5 clocking she needed to advance.
I learned of her feat the afternoon it happened when uber-talented boys distance runner, WIAA state boys cross country runner-up and national power Northern Arizona recruit Cael Grotenhuis of Slinger ran up to me at the Gose Invitational in Kewaskum and gleefully shoved his phone into my face, showing me a photo of Willis’s victory.
With her effort, Willis became just the 12th American woman to meet that standard. She also set a national record for 16-year olds at the distance and became the fourth fastest prep 800 runner of all time.
She had been aiming at making that cutoff all spring, having come close at a number of specialty events while also doing some remarkable things at distances ranging from 100 to 1,600 meters (including going close to two seconds under Brooke Novak of Kaukauna’s 20-year old state record in the 1,600 with a 4:41.46 effort at a quadrangular in late April).
“It’s probably been my biggest high school goal,” Willis told Mary Albl of DyeStat, who posted an excellent story on Willis’ trials clinching race on May 23. “The Olympic Trials was my big thing. So to have that it’s such a big deal for me. To have it means so much, and I’m so grateful.”
We track afficionados in Wisconsin are of only a slightly mixed opinion on her feat. Yes, it reflects magnificently on Wisconsin prep track and on the fertile running grounds of Stevens Point, home of legends Suzy Favor Hamilton and Chris Solinsky and dozens of other excellent competitors.
For comparison, it’s good to judge Willis against the best, for at the prom and acne-concerned age of 16, she’s not all that far away from the Olympian Hamilton’s all-time best of 1:58.1 set back in 2000 when Suzy was 32! To put it in perspective, Favor Hamilton set the then Wisconsin state record in the 800 at 2:09.88 in 1985, at the same approximate age that Willis is now.
So consider the fact that young Ms. Roisin is already NINE full seconds ahead of what Favor achieved in the 800 in 1985, a staggering feat considering that what Favor did in 1985 earned her much well-deserved national attention.
In fact, that 2:09.88 stood as the official state record for 30 years until Davre knocked off some small increments of time in 2015 with her 2:09.22 effort.
Both Favor Hamilton and Davre (she of 10 WIAA state titles) were obviously great prep runners in a race that takes just about two minutes plus to complete, but if they were all running in the same 800 race at the same age Willis is now, they would barely be hitting the final straight when Willis would be crossing the finish line.
An impossible to fanthom 9 seconds slower!
It’s a staggering concept for anyone with knowledge of the sport to wrap their heads around.
Let’s put this in perspective. Favor Hamilton (then just Favor) put the 800 meter record on fully modern footing in 1985 with that 2:09.88., the first Wisconsin girl to to go under 2:10. She had taken approximately 1.09 seconds off of the great Mary Ann Brunner of Waukesha North’s 2:10.97 mark set in 1980.
As noted, Favor’s time stubbornly stood for 30 years without a serious challenge (no one within a second of it) until Davre scraped .66 of a second off of it 2015 to get it down to 2:09.22.
That was a .86 of a percent improvement, a tiny sliver of betterment in three decades.
Then along came Willis in 2019, much anticipated, much hyped, and all she did was dump a remarkable 3.54 seconds off of Davre’s very fine time. In fact, it was a full 4.57 percent better, a crazy number in terms of record improvement.
To lend even more perspective to what Willis did at the time as a 14-year old, if someone were to do that to Eric Brown of Wisconsin Lutheran’s eight-year old boys 800 mark 1:51.48, they would have to run an absolutely staggering 1:47.94, nothing that Wisconsin state record-holders such as Andrew Perkins of Watertown, Gabe Genovesi of Homestead or even arguably the greatest prep middle distance runner in Wisconsin history Mark Winzenried of Monroe, could ever have conceived of in their high school primes.
And in 2021 how much better is the staggeringly and sublimely talented Ms. Willis in the 800 then even her eye-popping 2019 self? A completely ridiculous 4.9 seconds, a ludicrous 6.2 percent better.
She’s absolutely re-created the standard by which excellence in Wisconsin prep track is being measured by.
A good comparison on the girls side could be sprint genius and Olympic hopeful Bryant of Bradley Tech, who set three new records in the 100 dash between 2009-2011, eventually settling on the current mark of 11.38. Prior to 2009, the old state mark of 11.84 held by state hall of famer Diane Lemmitt of Milwaukee West had stood for an amazing 28 years.
Remember, Bryant’s efforts elicited noises of astonishment from the La Crosse crowds not heard since the days of Michael Bennett of Tech and Gabe Jennings of Madison East in the late 1990s and not heard again until the brilliant Olympic hopeful Kenny Bednarek of Rice Lake a few years ago.
And by the time Bryant was done and slashed a healthy .46 of a second off that 100 standard, the record had been improved by just over half a percentage point (.054 to be exact) not even close to the amount of damage Willis has done to the 800. Even when the Bryant anchored Tech 4 x 100 relay effort of 46.02 of 2011 slashed a Grand Canyon deep crevasse of 1.72 seconds out of Milwaukee King’s previous two-year state mark, it still represented just a .82 of a percent improvement.
What the late Larry Franklin of Madison Central did in the boys long jump in the mid-1960s remains the alpha of all record takedowns. It’s an event where standards are taken by inches or even fractions of an inch. He upped the 11-year old record of Loren Clark of Janesville by a half inch with a 23-6 effort in 1964 and then staggered the Wisconsin track world the following year in 1965 with his still standing cross-state flight of 25-1/2.
With that, Franklin lifted his own mark by an astonishing 6.5 percent and even though the great Marcus Jenkins of Bradley Tech went a bit further than Franklin at the Hartford Invitational in 2008 with a showing of 25-2 1/4, Franklin’s unicorn of an official long jump record still remains the Holy Grail that state athletes seek to take down, the oldest WIAA mark out there.
So, to put it bluntly, Willis has put herself among only the very most elite of company.
I spoke earlier about the rarity of Willis’ talent because it is hard to define or fanthom. Finding someone who is even close to her level over so many distances is as elusive as as finding a boy who can run a 10.5 100 dash and then turn around and drop a 9:00 3,200.
It just doesn’t happen.
Because Willis is hardly just all about the 800 at all, as so far this year, she has posted high state honor roll times (compiled assiduously and carefully by the tireless advocate of girls track Dave Figi) in all distances from the 100 to the 1,600.
She is fifth in the 100 (12.64), second in the 200 (25.22), first in the 400 (53.87, just .16 of a second behind Jaworski’s four-year old mark. of 53.71), obviously first for all time in the 800 with the 2:00.78 and just for laughs, she turned in that aforementioned 4:41.46 in the 1,600, which lops precisely 1.74 seconds off the impressive Ms. Novak’s official 2001 mark.
One hazards to think what Willis might be able to do in the 3,200 or even the 100 or 300 low hurdles. Remember Jaworski tried the 300s in 2018 as a break from her 200-400 routine and all she got for her efforts was a complete event rewrite with a still standing 41.4 state record effort that landed her berths in international events.
And the international stage is something that track fans across Wisconsin and the nation are beginning to imagine that Willis can reach very quickly and stay there for a long time if she puts her mind to it and stays healthy.
So yes, Roisin Willis, we will miss you terribly at state track in La Crosse June 24-26. Have a good time at the Trials, run fast, run smart and make all your dreams come true.
We’ll be cheering you on!
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see you in 2022?