6-5-1@SPARTA interview with Benita Willis

Benita Willis | Saucony sponsored athleteThe winner of the 2004 IAAF World Cross Country Championship (the last non-African to achieve this feat), Benita Willis is one of Australia’s greatest ever middle distance runners.

She holds the Commonwealth Record for the marathon as well as the Australian record for the 2km, 3km, 5km 10km & marathon. Over the years, Benita has also won or placed at many prestigious races including the World Half Marathon Championships, the Berlin Marathon & Chicago Marathon.

A 3 time Olympian, Benita earlier this month cemented her spot in her 4th Olympic Games at London by finishing 2nd at the Houston Marathon & running a (smoking!) Olympic “A” qualifying time of 2:28:24.

I am delighted to  welcome Benita to Sparta ~

1/. What is the biggest challenge to your motivation & how do you overcome that?

Following the Beijing Olympics, I went through a lot of personal setbacks including the passing of my father (we are an extremely tight knit family, was really tough and still is now), marriage breakdown and felt stale in where I was in my career. Didn’t really enjoy where I was living or what I was doing. Needed to change some things in my life to become settled and happy again.

It took me 3-4 years to find happiness and enjoyment back in my life and with that, the running started to improve. I never quit. Actually I felt many people in Australia wrote me off and never thought I’d be back performing at the world class level again. I am a tough bugger I guess. And I have come back from so many life experiences that have made me strong as hell.

Running is not the be all and end all, but it is something which I love. I have never stopped loving my running. My family is amazing though. They are what makes me happy. And my friends too of course.

2/. Aside from your running, what other training do you do (eg, strength, stretching, core etc) and how important is it to your performance?

I do a bit of cross-training as well as core exercises most days, stretching every day and some gym work a few times a week. These things are all important but what I call the “one per centers”. The running is the most important thing to getting a good marathon out. Doing the key workouts, getting the recovery right and being relaxed and happy in your life.

3/. What is one pivotal event in your past that has shaped your present?

I believe it wasn’t till I competed in the World Indoors over 3km in 2001 (I was 6th) that I really thought I could be a world class athlete. 

After winning the 2004 World Cross Country ChampionshipI made the Sydney Olympic team when I was just 20, just missed the final of the 5km but didn’t really think I was good enough or could ever be good enough to make it to the top. But the next year, I gained confidence from World Indoors then World Cross 2 weeks later (was also 6th), where I thought “I could do this”. Did I know it was possible, well no. But I was going to have a bloody good crack at it.

Then went on to get my first World Championship medal in 2003 (World Half Marathon) then win my first world title in 2004 (World Cross Country).

I am still the last non-African to have won the World Cross Country championship and Australia’s only ever medallist.

4/. Who is the person (or people) who have had the most influence on your sporting success?

There are a few people.

Mum, along with my two brothers, sister and Dad are my biggest positive influences in my life. No one else comes close. We are a tight knit family and had so much fun doing all things together growing up. My mum was especially strong and there for us all as well as looking after Dad as his condition deteriorated rapidly (he eventually died of a neurological disease which was never diagnosed). It was such a tough tough time. Mum was amazing. She has been so strong for us all and there for us all.

My dad introduced me to running. We just used to run along the beach a few times a week (grew up in a coastal town in far north Qld called, Mackay. House was 400m from the beach. Same town as Cathy Freeman was from) in bare feet in ankle deep water. We’d love going hard and look forward to running against the strong wind on the way back from the point. We’d then go swimming then walk home. I’d love those times with my dad. He made me really feel the fun of running, feeling of being free and the enjoyment you get out of pushing yourself and feeling really fit. My whole family have always been a huge inspiration to me also – they were always there for me. Understood when I had to be overseas competing most of the year and so happy to see me come home. Whether I’d had a good year or not. I was always just Benita the sister, daughter and best friend to them all.

Caitlin, Kelby and Trent [my siblings] are my best friends and we had so much fun growing up with massively competitive backyard sport games etc. We were all very close and happy for each other to achieve our goals in life – whatever that is. My sister Caitlin is super fast and has made multiple World Champs and Commonwealth Games teams for Australia. She is an inspiration to me – holds down a full time job as a lawyer amongst it all. And is always there for me.

My coach/manager, Nic Bideau has had a big influence on my career. His guidance with not just training but help with the mental side of preparing for big races, has really helped me perform when it counted most. I really struggled with believing I could do things even if I was super fit. It’s hard to get your head around doing something big on the world level. If you don’t believe it in your mind, you can’t do it.

I was also fortunate to train with one of the all time best runners in the world, Sonia O’Sullivan. She taught me how to be a proper elite athlete, how to train and how to live your life to achieve greatness. She is one of the all time best the sport has ever had – I was so lucky to learn a lot of things from her and always fortunate to have her around when I was young and throughout my career. I can never thank her enough for all her help.

There have been many other people in my career along the way – now that I am living here in Boulder, Colorado and have managed to turn my career around and get back on track – I am inspired and fortunate to have the help and guidance of Brad Hudson to control my coaching program and the best training partner ever, James Carney. They are great and have been so positive and patient with helping me as I continue to improve culminating in a great half marathon in Las Vegas in December 2011 (won & broke the Commonwealth Record) then qualifying easily for our Olympic team in Houston 2012 marathon.

5/. If you weren’t a professional athlete, what would you do and why?

I would probably do something in the fitness industry. I have a huge interest in helping people improve the quality of their lives by getting fit, losing weight and thus getting the most out of their lives.

I have 3 university degrees too – may use them one day! I would also like to buy/ own a coffee shop which serves the best coffee (love good coffee!) as well as amazing food and serves as a meeting place for group runs, fitness circuit classes, places for people to hang out and have a good laugh etc. We’ll see. One day maybe! [Editors note: sounds like my idea of a perfect coffee shop!]

6/. If you could go back in time & give one piece of advice to yourself when you were 18, what advice would that be?

Always follow your dreams and don’t be afraid to take risks and chances.

Benita is proud to be sponsored by Saucony, GenUCAN & Oakley.

You can follow her journey towards the London Olympic Games later this year (and beyond) on her website at www.benitawillis.com.au or on Twitter at @benitawillis.

Thank you soo much for your time Benita. Best wishes for your 4th Olympic Games!