The roads in and around the western Maine town of Greenwood probably have been a little more cluttered with bottles and cans the past six years.
Six years ago, Anna Willard left her family’ s farm in Greenwood to attend Brown University in Providence.
So the young distance runner, who used to pick up returnables on her training runs in her hometown, hasn’ t been around to clean up the roads.
“It was so funny. Sometimes she had so many, she couldn’ t handle them all. So she’ d put them in a pile, finish her run and drive back and pick them up,” said Nancy Willard, Anna’ s mother.
Instead of looking for returnables, her daughter now is looking to pick up a medal in the first-ever women’ s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The steeplechase’ s first round is Aug. 15 with the finals set for Aug. 17. The opening ceremony for the games is Friday.
Willard earned her spot on the team in dramatic fashion, shattering the American record with a time of 9 minutes, 22.75 seconds in winning the event at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Her record has since been broken by teammate Jenny Barringer, who clocked a 9:22.73 during a meet in Belgium two weeks later to nip Willard (9:22.76) at the line.
“Running is her passion,” said her father, Al. “She knew what she had to do [to be successful] and she was willing to do it. That’ s all there is to it.
“She used to make up these silly little signs that she would put on doors to remind herself to get off the couch and run. They would keep her motivated,” added Al. “It might have been 15 degrees outside with the snow blowing sideways but she’ d still go out for her run. She’ d come back 45 minutes later with icicles hanging out of her hair.”
Anna Willard’ s climb to national prominence is more remarkable considering her Bethel-based Telstar High School track team didn’ t have its own track.
“It did present some challenges but, honestly, I did not do very many workouts in high school and it was all I knew so it wasn’ t a problem,” wrote Willard on Monday in an e-mail from China to the BDN.
She carved out a brilliant All-State high school career in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track.
Her senior year, Willard had the third-fastest time (19:48) among girls in all classes while winning the state Class D title at Augusta’ s 3.1-mile course.
That spring, she won the state Class C title in the 1,600 (5:26.22) and the 800 (2:24.76) and was second in the 3,200 (12:23.11).
“I always prided myself in having versatility and I still enjoy doing every event from the 800m-5000m,” wrote Willard.
She had a tremendous career at Brown, notching school records in the outdoor 800 meters, 1,500-, 3,000-, 5,000- and 3,000-meter steeplechase. She is the indoor record holder in the 1,000 and the 1-mile run. She also ran a leg for the school record 4×800 and distance medley relay teams for both the indoor and outdoor track teams.
She didn’ t run the steeplechase until her junior year.
The 3,000-meter steeplechase challenges the runners to clear 28 solid barriers (not collapsible hurdles) and seven water jumps.
“One of her teammates, Meredith Crocker, was injured and couldn’ t run the steeplechase,” recalled Nancy Willard. “One of her coaches, Rick Wemple, suggested she try the steeplechase. She did and she set a school record.”
For her senior year, she had a first-year coach in Craig Lake, who wound up playing a crucial role in her rise to national prominence.
But Lake admits that the two “butted heads” when they first met.
“Her vision of dedication and my vision of dedication were far off. I raised the bar of expectations. No one wants to hear that. No one wants to hear they need to do 10 or 20 times more than they had been doing,” said Lake, who told Willard she would have to sacrifice a healthy portion of her social life if she wanted to reach the next level.
Lake’ s no-nonsense, intense approach to track and cross country was a wakeup call for Willard and her teammates, who had been used to a more casual approach under the previous regime.
“Craig Lake did indeed help me realize that I had a lot of untapped potential. She pushed me mentally and physically and completely restructured my training my senior year at Brown. This helped launch my career and even though I am not coached by her anymore, I still believe that I am where I am now because of her,” Willard wrote in Monday’ s e-mail.
Willard may have questioned Lake’ s itinerary, but she bought into it, as has always been her way, according to her parents.
“She has always listened to her coaches. She has never taken shortcuts. She feels her coaches know more than she does,” said Al Willard, who added that his daughter was one of his best and most conscientious farmworkers growing up.
Lake said Willard’ s coachability and leadership made her transition easier because the other athletes followed Willard’ s lead.
“She set the bar for a lot of athletes who really looked up to her,” said Lake.
Since Willard had to sit out a year at Brown due to injury, she had one year left of eligibility remaining, so she went to graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she won Big 10 championships in the 3,000 steeplechase, 1,500 run and 5,000. She was named the Big 10 Track Athlete of the Year and capped the 2007 season with the NCAA 3,000 steeplechase championship.
The sky is the limit for the 24-year-old Willard, according to Lake.
“She’ s only been running seriously for three years so if she stays healthy and focused, I can see her running in two more Olympics after this one,” said Lake, who expects Willard to win a medal at some time.
She said to be a world-class steeplechaser, a runner has to be “very athletic and very coordinated” and Willard fits that mold.
“She has great speed and now she also has strength. Those are great attributes in the steeplechase,” said Lake.
She is an intense competitor, according to her mom.
“She hates to lose,” said Nancy Willard.
Willard has an infectious, outgoing personality and always envisioned being famous.
“She wanted to be a world-famous author or something like that,” said Nancy Willard. “She always danced to her own tune and entertained herself.”
She has an offbeat sense of humor that she shares with her father.
“We’ ll roar [with laughter] over the simplest things,” said Al.
When she has time off, Anna Willard wrote, she “enjoys camping and hiking and adventures that I don’ t have time to do when I have to run every day. A big interest I have is food, both from a nutritional standpoint, but also from a cultural and flavor standpoint. I love cooking and entertaining guests and often have friends over for dinner.”
Willard often will compete in multicolored hair and she doesn’ t care if it is met with funny stares.
“She is true to herself,” said Lake. “If someone makes fun of her hairstyle, she’ s OK with that.
“She’ s very personable and very outgoing. She’ s very confident in herself. She’ s a unique person. She’ s fun to be around. She’ s a very open, strong woman who sticks to her guns,” said Lake.
Willard, who got engaged to fellow steeplechaser Jon Pierce at the U.S. Olympic trials, is looking forward to the Olympics.
“I have worked very hard this year both preparing my body physically, but also reinforcing to myself that I belong in the Olympic final and if I put myself in a good position, there is no reason I won’ t medal,” wrote Willard. “I do enjoy the athleticism of the steeplechase and knowing that I am a very good hurdler and water jumper helps give me confidence going into a big meet such as this. I am very excited to see how the race unfolds and believe I am equal to the challenge.”
Lake said Willard “can really rise to the occasion.”