Interview: Roisin Willis After Winning Gold At The World Athletics U20 Championships 800 Meters

By Kyle Merber

August 11, 2022

The U20 World Championships in Colombia was the perfect way for Roisin Willis to end her high school career. Having run 2-flat on four occasions, Willis made the race honest early and pushed the field and herself as she won the title in 1:59.14. We caught up with Willis one last time as the bow is tied on an all-time great prep career.

I know you are in the car driving a few hours after a long flight from Colombia, but you’re returning home with two gold medals. How are you feeling after all of that? Especially with it being your first time in the USA kit!

It’s been a whirlwind. The week has been absolutely insane, but definitely just feeling super grateful for Team USA. That whole experience was just a trip to remember.

After watching Worlds and seeing the athletes in the jerseys, and then to get to experience that on the U20 level was just very cool. Getting to wear the jersey and officially holding the flag was a memorable moment for me. I hope I can hold that flag again in the future — a definite goal.

The race itself was really interesting because you went out fast and then slammed on the brakes a little bit. Then most athletes don’t respond like that once getting passed with 150 meters to go. Was that how you envisioned it going?

My game plan in the final was to get out and I didn’t expect to take the lead with such ease. I know the limit of my capabilities and that second 200, I just wanted to make sure I would have enough left. My coach says the last 300 is when the race starts, so anything before that is just trying to be comfortable.

I was surprised with 200 left — it definitely did throw me off guard and I think normally I would have lost that race. But in this situation, I just wanted it so bad that I was able to take it to a different level that last hundred meters with my strength. It’s definitely my most gutsy race ever.

Were you thinking about that sub-two or just the win? I am sure that’s been on your mind a lot since last year.

Goal number one was to win, but watching the semis I knew it was going to be a fast day. I had my game plan to take it out hard, so I kind of just assumed they would come together.

Even older athletes would struggle to hold it together so long into the season after such a successful indoor season. How did you manage to have such longevity this year?

There were definitely hard points since I didn’t take a break after my indoor season because I did the New Balance relay. I had my school season and that’s a time when a lot of pressure is taken off. Then in late June, I was starting to get a bit tired, but I got COVID so I actually had to take a week off and reset.

I think the key for me was having all of July with no racing and just training. That helped me at Worlds because I had the training under my belt, but mentally I was recovered and ready to go. Also, I have good coaches who were watching out for me so that I didn’t overdo it this season. I don’t feel burnt out or anything. I feel like it kind of just ended at the right time. Ready to take a break, but I’m feeling good.

I am sure there would be the opportunity to go pro if you wanted, but what is it about going to Stanford and running in the NCAA next year that you are most excited about?

First off, Coach Clark is the absolute perfect coach for me, and I’m just really excited to work together. Everyone he is connected with speaks so highly of him. I think that he’s perfect for what I’m trying to do. But I’m also excited about being in the PAC-12 with so many good 400m runners to race against, but also in the 1500 and longer distances. I’m excited to be able to race all different types of events. And the team at Stanford having such a strong distance group is really going to help me improve in all areas.

It’s sort of a joke for everyone to suggest that someone should move up in distance. But you brought it up! And since your mom was a great distance runner, do you ever see that in your future?

It’s funny because going into high school, I was convinced that I was going to be a miler. But we just kept working on speed and my 400 has really come a long way. I didn’t think I’d actually be this good at it. The 800 is what I’m focusing on and the 1500 requires a lot of strength — I don’t see myself doing it for a long time.

Yeah, I think what you’re doing is working just fine! What did you end up splitting on the 4×400?

The official split was 51.34.

That’s insane and after three races.

So is your relationship with Juliette (Whittaker) as special as it seems from the outside? To be at this level together the last couple of years and then heading to college together seems like a movie.

I don’t think you can really have a friend as good as Juliette. Like, she’s absolutely amazing. We were roommates the whole time in Colombia and I think we spent every single minute together. The only time we separated was when I was running the relay.

We are really supportive of each other and after the race she said all the right things and was so gracious. I think we both know how to be happy for each other. Obviously, there are days when the spotlight’s on her and she’s running great. And then some days, it’s my turn. But I’m so excited to go to Stanford together to see what the future holds — we complement each other’s strengths.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.