Walking isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Olympic sprinter Nick Willis. The New Zealander won silver and bronze medals in successful 1500m runs at the London and Rio Olympic Games.
He is fast—one of the fastest men in the world. But when it comes to life off the track, Willis has found that walking tall has more to do with character than medals and fame.
“Since I was 12, I binge-drank twice a week, every week,” he said to A Runner’s World.
Grieving the loss of his mother, faith was never on the agenda for Willis. And while he grew up in a Christian family, he was repelled by his anger.
“[As a child] I asked, ‘What about my dad? He found Jesus but he has had all these people die in his life and he spends most nights sleepless and stressed and has anxiety!’” he told New Zealand’s War Cry.
Through this time, Willis found his feet as a competitive runner. After gaining an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan in the USA, his drinking and partying ways continued to spiral downward, fuelled by his anger towards God.
“It all came out after my first year at university,” he said. “I realised I was becoming an adult and had to choose who I was going to be in this world.
“That’s when I started reflecting on my mum. I had never grieved for her, so I started that grieving process. I realised that if I think she’s genuinely up there in Heaven then there must be a God who created that Heaven.”
Wrestling with these questions led Willis to the local campus Christian sports ministry—and that’s when his life got back on track. He sobered up and a year after he became a Christian he qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Overcoming injury, he missed the final, something he now admits was due to his own ego. However Willis continued to train hard and grow in his humility and faith.
He met his wife Sierra on campus, travelled across the world, became a multi-Commonwealth Games medallist and was even the flag-bearer for New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympics.
As a much-loved family man, a committed Christian and an outspoken advocate against sports enhancing drugs, he seemed to have it all together—but the public learned otherwise when he announced in 2016 that he was recovering from pornography addiction with the help of his wife.
He shared that the habit had begun as a teenager, but he only realised how detrimental it was when he saw how it affected the people around him.
“We decided to beat it together. We talked openly about the issues of sex trafficking, abuse of women, objectification of women and accessibility of pornography for young people on cell phones,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
“Getting this topic out of my secret life into the open, and talking, talking, talking has been the biggest impact in breaking the cycle. The freedom I experience now allows me to walk tall.”
Life is never easy, something Willis can attest to once again after pulling out of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games due to a stress fracture in his leg. However, he now stands taller than ever. Not just as an accomplished athlete, but also as a man of God who values his family, integrity and faith more than any world record.