Athlete Spotlight: Sean Willard

The Midlothian distance runners pipeline of tomorrow's champions appears to be alive and well, especially with a freshmen class of runners which has brought longstanding coach Stan Morgan two talented younger siblings of former Midlothian athletes this year in freshmen Marie Johnston and Sean Willard. Johnston nearly won the Group AAA state title in the 1000 meter run, while Willard most recently won the Nike Indoor Nationals freshmen mile title in a thrilling finish with a PR time of 4:31 for a full mile.

Willard (pictured left by John Herzog) has been around high school track meets for years following and watching his older sisters Tierney and Krista compete, so the Midlothian ninth grader was well prepared of what to expect at the next level transitioning from being one of the top middle school runners in his county to having to work his way up the ranks in his first year of high school.

His ascension has been pretty quick up the ladder in finishing his cross country season with a PR just over 16 minutes for 5K and qualifying indoors for state competition in the 1000 meter run with a runner-up regional finish. With the opportunity to run on a fast 200 meter track for the first time in over 2 months at the 1600 meter/mile distance, Willard took full advantage to knock off 10 seconds from his previous best and more importantly reel in the race leader in the final lap to win the NIN freshmen mile title.


Interview with Sean Willard That was a thrilling win for you in Boston in the freshmen mile. What were your emotions following that race and how did your coach, family, and teammates react to your win?


Sean Willard: Thanks. When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe that I was a national champion. Right after the race, I saw my dad and then called my mom, who was watching Runnerspace at home, and she was waiting for the results. I gave Coach Morgan a big hug, and he was thrilled with the outcome. Dave Davis, Kaitlyn Davis and her father were instrumental in supporting me. My sisters put the race on facebook so all of my teammates watched it and commented on my wall.


(Photo right by Matt Shatkus) How did the race unfold for you? How did the first half of the race go? At what point did you and your competition separate from the rest of the field? How did you feel as you hit that final straightaway?


Willard: I thought the race went really well. This indoor season I had been doing a lot of 1000m races so I just tried to carry it over to the mile. The first half we went through around 2:16-2:18, and I felt really good at that point. Then once we hit the thousand mark, one of the guys took off and I didn’t think that I was going to real him in. Coming around with 200 left I just said to myself, “you have 200 meters of pain and you can potentially be a national champion,” so I just lifted my legs and pumped my arms as fast as I could and it all worked out perfectly. My form fell apart in the last several meters because I was reaching for the win, but luckily I had pulled ahead. It had been a while since you got an opportunity to run a fast 1600/mile on a decent track. Actually since CNU in early January. Obviously you went to Boston to try and earn All-American honors and potentially win, but were you really looking forward to getting an opportunity to lower your time even more so?


Willard: Absolutely. I knew I could run much faster up in Boston because I had run well at the district and region meets. Outside of Richmond, nobody understands how slow the Arthur Ashe Center is. I was planning on running fast at Virginia Tech earlier this year, but it was canceled due to all of the snow.


(Photo left by Ryan Kelly) Did you feel like you were capable of dropping your time by 10 seconds? Did your workouts indicate that level of fitness to run around 4:30?


Willard:  I thought I could definitely run a PR, but I did not think I was going to by 10 seconds. When I ran a 4:40 at our district meet in early February, I was confident I could improve my time in Boston on the fast banked track at the Reggie Lewis center. How has the transition been for you from middle school to high school? Especially considering going from the top runner and winning all of you races in middle school to now having to work yourself up to stay up with the top upperclassmen runners?


Willard:  It was very frustrating for me going from being the top dog in middle school to being the lowest man on the totem pole in high school, but I knew it was going to happen and my family prepared me for it. I think it is better to start at the bottom and work your way up in high school, rather than start at the top and have only one place to go; which is backwards. Right now I am enjoying being the hunter, as opposed to being the hunted. What influence or impact has Brayden Burleigh had on you? With Brayden having enjoyed a lot of success as a freshmen including winning a Nike Indoor Nationals freshmen mile title like you, do you feel yourself asking him more questions about handling the early success as well as the expectations that come with it and continuing to excel later in high school?


(Photo right by Linda D'Amato)


Willard: Brayden has had a huge influence on me. I have watched the back of his jersey since I was in the sixth grade when we raced in middle school. Seeing him have a ton of success in middle school and then continue it as a freshman in high school motivated me a lot. I am very fortunate to have such a great coach like Coach Morgan and to be able to run with guys like Brayden, Darren the other underclassman: along with the leadership of Troy and Joey; it has been great. Not too many people get to run on a team like Midlothian’s on an everyday basis. The regional 1000 race was a really step up performance for you as you took charge early on to put yourself in position and beat some talented runners to finish 2nd and qualify individually for the state meet. What was your mindset and plan going into that race and how did you feel you executed your race plan?


Willard:  To be honest with you, I did not even have a race plan; my plan was to go out there and run as hard as I could until I could not go any longer. I thought going into that race that it was going to be very tough to qualify as a freshman for states, but it all worked out well in the end. I have asthma, so I’m always concerned about the Ashe Center, but I was fortunate to get through that race. The state meet is a different story though.


Photo by Brandon Miles You have had the opportunity to watch your older sisters Tierney and Krista to compete in many high school meets before you were a freshmen. What was one of the most memorable races that you got to watch at a high school meet that really got you excited about competing in the sport in high school?


Willard: Virginia has had a ton of unbelievably memorable races in its history. Last year when I watched Albemarle run all of those unbelievable relays; Bobby Peavey in the indoor state meet; Thomas Porter in cross country; and Jason Witt and Michael Hammond a couple of years ago did some big things in track and cross. So I can’t really say there’s only been one unbelievable race, because I have seen a lot over the past years. How valuable has been getting the big championship meet experience this year in building ahead to future years when you are more developed as a runner and able to contend for possible titles?


Willard:  This win was huge, but unfortunately colleges and most people don’t remember what you did your freshman year. Sure it gave me a ton of confidence and I am going to try my hardest to carry it over to outdoor, but one thing you have to remember is that there is always someone out there working harder than you and trying to beat you. I may not win every race I run, but I can promise you I will not let someone outwork me. How different would your freshmen year of running have been if you did not get a chance to run competitively in middle school?


Willard: I think it would be totally different if I had not run last year. For me, middle school was all about having fun and getting ready for this year. I raced all different distances; I ran Maymont with the Tatnall coaches, Brentsville, Fork Union, Prince George Learning Center and E.C Glass outdoors 1600. Last year I wasn’t worrying about how fast I was running; I just worked on my strength for this year. What are your goals for this outdoor season? You also ran the 2 mile at Nike Indoor Nationals? Do you plan on running a few 3200's and seeing how far you can dip under 10 minutes this spring?


Willard:  Yes I ran the 2 mile and that was one of those experiences that I knew I was going to get killed, but I wanted to try it anyway because it was so different than what I’ve trained for. There were some openings in the race and I asked if I could run it and after they checked my times they told me I could do it. My plan for this year is to run a lot of two miles and miles and hopefully a few 800’s. I have some goals in mind, but I’m keeping them to myself. Obviously, qualifying for outdoor states is a big part of it.