Simon Fraser's Olivia Willett, pictured here at the NCAA Div. 2 West Region championships, closed out her collegiate career Saturday in the national championship race by making a statement about the size her heart. (Photo courtesy Simon Fraser athletics 2021. All Original Rights Reserved)
Feature University Cross Country

SFU’s pure-guts harrier Olivia Willett collapses on course at NCAA XC nationals 300m shy of finish: “My brain was telling me to keep going but my legs were Jello”

The late, great U.S. middle distance runner Steve Prefontaine would likely have been smiling from above Saturday morning.

And not because a talented collegian, in the final race of her NCAA cross-country career, had collapsed on the course at the national Div. 2 women’s championship race just 300 metres from the finish line.

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” Prefontaine had been quoted as saying, and in a nutshell, that is precisely the way that Simon Fraser senior harrier Olivia Willett has run over her entire career.

“I had a strategy going into it,” Willett explained via phone call from St. Leo, Fla., a few hours after she had recovered from the effects of a hilly course held on a hot and humid day.

It was simple: She would charge the last hill to gain momentum towards a race-finishing kick down the demanding course’s final hill, all with a goal of fashioning what would be deemed All-American status.

“I was going to stick with that strategy even if it took me out of the race,” continued Willett who at the time was sitting within the Top 30 of the 240-strong field, and easily within her goal at the time of her collapse.

“And I would have been fine with it, because knowing that I left it all out there is so much better, in my opinion, than if I had finished knowing I still had something left in me.”

In the running world, that’s best-described, especially by Prefontaine, as ‘A pure-guts race’.

Simon Fraser , the West Region team champs, went on to finish 16th overall as Willett, the individual GNAC champion and West Region runner-up, was heartbreakingly carted off the course and to the medical tent. Adams State finished first.

“I was at the finish line and I had no idea that she had gone down,” said SFU head coach Brit Townsend afterwards. “I asked ‘Where is Olivia’ and they told me she had collapsed 300 metre from the finish line.

Looking to crest a hill Saturday and then charge on the final decline, like she did here on a less-hilly layout at West Regionals, SFU senior Olivia Willett collapsed on the course just strides away from the finish line at the NCAA D2 nationals in Florida. (Photo courtesy Simon Fraser athletics 2021. All Original Rights Reserved)

Still a little groggy, Willett was asked to remember her final moments of the six-kilometre race.

“I was picking it up because I knew all the girls would kick on the downhill, so as I was getting to the top, I could feel my legs getting tired, and once I got to the top, they started freezing up.

“I was moving in slow motion,” continued the graduate of Port Coquitlam’s Riverside Secondary. “Then my legs stopped functioning and I collapsed. I tried to get up and take a few steps and I would just keep falling down. My legs were jello. My brain was telling me to keep going but my legs weren’t co-operating.”

Along the way, Willett was passed by all of her SFU teammates, like senior Alison Andrews-Paul, the team’s top runner in 76th place, as well as underclassmen Megan Roxby, Grace Chalk, Kate Cameron, Emily Chilton and Ella Marion.

Simon Fraser’s Olivia Willett (right) has set a bar for all of her returning teammates following a dramatic end to her career as a university harrier on Saturday. (Photo courtesy Simon Fraser athletics 2021. All Original Rights Reserved)

With the latter five, plus a gaggle of others all returning next season, Townsend was asked is anything could replicate the lessons of seeing its senior leader having given every last ounce of her will to do her best for her team, being carted off the course in the final race of her career.

“You cannot match that,” the former Olympian explained. “You cannot match that at all. They have all looked up to Olivia and they will continued to do so.

“She wanted to see what was possible when you believe in yourself, and you go out there and you are willing to take risks,” Townsend added, “because none of us succeed without taking a risk.”

And that’s because “…to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

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