I’m an old history major whose degree from the fine (albeit a bit overbuilt) UW-La Crosse is 40 years old this year.
And I love the prospect of what kind of history may happen this weekend at the WIAA state track meet!
Stevens Point’s Roisin Willis is 18, tall, talented and amazingly swift and she made Wisconsin prep track fans gasp when as a 15-year old freshman in 2019, she obliterated the WIAA state 800 record and ran a lightning fast leg for the Pointers’ victorious 4×400 relay.
She has only gotten better since then and is on the verge of national and potentially international glory as arguably one of the greatest prep female middle distance runners in American history.
But first she is going cast a grace note upon Wisconsin high school track fans as she is going to compete in just her second WIAA state meet in her four-year career this Friday and Saturday June 3 and 4 in La Crosse, competing in the same two events as she did four years ago with hopefully even more historic results.
Because if Willis does the potentially unthinkable, and become only the second American girl in history to break the two-minute barrier in the 800-meters (maybe taking down Mary Cain‘s nine-year old national prep record of 1:59.51 in the process) I will argue vigorously that she will have created the greatest state record in Wisconsin prep track history.
I say that with all due apologies to Stu Voigt in the shot put (a record that lasted nearly 40 years), Michael Bennett, Dezerea Bryant and Kenny Bednarek in the sprints; Brooke Jaworski in the 300 low hurdles and of course the late long jump legend Larry Franklin, (he of the oldest record, the legendary 25 feet -3/4 inch effort way back in 1965), all of whom created concrete skyscrapers of standards in their specialties and in only rare instances (Voigt and Bennett) have seen those marks fall.
It is a natural goal for Willis, whose national indoor record of 2:00.06 against an elite field at the David Hemerey Valentine Invitational on Feb. 11 is now the second fastest time in American prep history according to Track and Field News. In doing so, she passed the late legend (and two-time Olympic medalist) Kim Gallagher, whose time of 2:00.07 stood as the national girls 800 mark for 31 years before Cain broke it in 2013.
To put this in context, in order to match what Willis might do, Oregon’s Yordanos Zelinski, who is line to potentially take down Eric Brown of Wisconsin Lutheran’s nine-year old boys’ 800 record of 1:51.48 after posting an impressive 1:51.09 at West Allis Hale’s Distance Night on April 29, would have to run better than 1:46.45, the time that Michael Granville posted in 1996 to set the still standing national boys’ record.
And Willis is ready for this moment, as this wasn’t the only record-setting effort for her this spring. Back on April 15 at THE TRACK in Boston, while running with the New Balance All-Star relay team, she ran the 800 leg in 2:03 to help shatter the girls’ national prep mark for the distance medley relay (1,200, 400, 800 and 1,600) by six seconds with a 10:33.85 showing.
So, to put it bluntly and again with all due apologies to the aforementioned greats, all of whom did amazing things but who never even really thought about setting national records, this is extremely rarified air that Willis is breathing.
The question is, will we thousands of Wisconsin track crazies who will be in La Crosse on Saturday, June 4 be privileged enough to witness Willis make real history and turn in still another national record effort?
And will we be able to breath while she is making the attempt?
To put this in perspective, multi-time national champion and Olympian Suzy Favor-Hamilton (also of Point, funny how that works must be something in the water), set a WIAA state track 800 mark in 1985 of 2:09.88 that stood stubbornly for 30 years before 10-time state champ Camille Davre of Whitefish Bay snipped .66 of a second off of that record in 2015.
An almost, transparent paper-thin wafer of a second off the estimable Favor-Hamilton’s mark
Then along came Willis in 2019 with an unimpeachable pedigree (her mother Breda Dennehy-Willis was an Olympian for Ireland) and she made everyone gasp, as she treated Davre’s historic 800 mark as so much yesterday’s news by turning in a stunning 2:05.68, the still standing WIAA record.
As everyone knows, we Wisconsin track fans have been denied the amazing Ms. Willis’ presence in La Crosse for the past two years now. Once for the tragic pandemic year spring sports cancellation of 2020 and last year for her astounding run into the semifinals of the Olympic Trials 800 which mesmerized the entire Wisconsin prep track fanbase (see my state track in la Crosse blog post from last year on the matter).
And we are all thrilled she will be coming back to close out her brief but eye-popping prep career on the UW-La Crosse track.
To prepare for this moment, Willis put on what could be called a “versatility tour” this spring. On April 29, at Point’s own outdoor invite, she turned in a 4:43.61 1,600, just .41 of a second off the 21-year state mark of Kaukauna’s Brooke Novak. Then at the Wisconsin Valley Conference meet on May 17, she came up just .01 of a second off of Jaworski’s five-year state 400 record with a 53.71 showing. That particular race was impressive just for the fact that Willis came that close to Jaworski’s standard despite the fact there was no one within seven seconds of her in the event, a ridiculous margin in the 400.
And at the WIAA Marshfield sectional on May 26, she gave us a hint that she may be really serious at going after that national 800 mark this weekend when she dropped a completely unchallenged 2:03.01 800, well under her already impressive state record of three years ago but as we all know, nowhere near what she’s capable of.
It would have been fun to have seen her try all three of those races at state this weekend and see her bury all three state marks (particularly the 800) for decades to come, but given the amount of work she would have had to put in to achieve that task, those particular records may not last as long as the one bold, singular attempt she is taking aim at this weekend with the 800.
No, I get the impression that Ms. Willis is more interested in quality rather than quantity this coming weekend. She will have run a qualifying heat of the 4×400 on Friday, but then will be fresh as the morning dew for Saturday’s 800.
It’s a different kind of thinking as opposed to Bryant of Bradley Tech in 2011, who ran six races in two days and still blew away the 100, 200 and 4×100 records. She still owns all those marks (she got a state team title to boot for good measure), but some of those sprint records could be had. A few years ago, a great Milwaukee King relay came tantalizingly close to that 4×100 mark and this year Chippewa Falls junior Brooklyn Sandvig has gone well below 12 seconds in the 100 dash putting Bryant’s brisk 11.38 mark at risk.
But all that is still just hypothetical.
Because if Willis does break the national 800 record or even comes very close, and there is no reason barring injury why she shouldn’t, I will be willing to put down a substantial amount of cash saying that that particular mark will last at least as long as Franklin’s 57-year old long jump mark.
Knowing that I will be long gone from this khaki plane by the time that Willis’ record is likely to be broken, I will put that money aside with a reputable attorney’s office through my estate and they could pay off anyone who just may happen to be lucky enough to win that bet.
But let’s just say I am very, very confident that it will be MY estate that is collecting on that little wager.
And I am not saying there isn’t a talent out there in the future who could take down any mark that Willis is going to set. What I am saying is that the kind of standard that Willis is likely to set is so extreme, so far ahead of what any other female athlete in Wisconsin has achieved so far (again apologies to Ms. Jaworski and the World Championship medal winning Ms. Bryant) that the kind of singular talent to do it occurs only once maybe every 50 to 100 years.
I know I haven’t seen anything like her before and I doubt many of my other track junkie pals have either.
The closest we have in regard to a standing girls’ record of that magnitude is Wendy Markham of Cedarburg’s 42-year old high jump mark of 6-0. To this day, she remains the only state female athlete to clear that barrier. That record is so stout, that only seven Wisconsin girls have cleared 5-10 since Markham set her mark in 1980 and none since Sun Prairie’s Tierney Lindner in 2015.
In fact, the only other boys WIAA record of that vintage belongs to the legendary Norwegian AFS student Dag Birkeland, who went to Iowa-Grant in 1970 and blew away the D3 (then Class C) mark in the long jump with a still standing 23-6 1/2 effort (a little cash could be put down against that record ever being beaten in my still healthy 63-year old lifetime too)!
But now this moment belongs to Willis. Much has been written how balanced and sane an upbringing she has had and how ready she is this final moment. She is preparing herself to attend Stanford this fall and already thinking about even bigger and better goals.
In an interview with Olivia DeValk of the Stevens Point News last summer she certainly sounded like she was aware of the noise and thunder that was surrounding her but was not going to let it bother her.
“Something my mom always tells me is don’t compare yourself to others. I think in track you can get caught up with constantly living in the comparison and getting caught up in what other people are doing,” Willis told DeValk.
“I definitely want to have a career that’s successful and happy, and make a lot of friends in the sport and just stay healthy. I don’t know if a certain accomplishment would make me happy. I would want to win those big medals, but I would also just want to have a successful career that I feel proud of.”
She already has much to be proud of in her very young life and I’m thinking that what she will do Saturday is only going to add luster to that sense in an enormous fashion.