Matt Willis: From school daydreaming to taking on the world

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Joe Willis in the club shirt of Wrexham. Picture: Matt Willis

It was a mostly typical Monday morning in March at a school in Cheshire in 2012.

Algebra, early starts and extra homework were now all that was on the mind as the post-weekend blues began to kick in for everyone.

Everyone that is, except Matt Willis. After a weekend that had seen him experience “the biggest shock of (his) life”, the new English Schools Cross Country champion was now sitting and staring out of the window, daring to dream.

Since then, the British international runner and triathlete has become used to success, recently winning the Under 20s race at the Inter Counties Cross Country to leave him set for the World Championships this weekend.

But after an Inter Counties debut as an Under 13 that saw him cross the line down in 212th, one race two years later at the English Schools Championships saw a victory that would change everything for the young Wrexham runner.

“That was the biggest shock of my life,” says Willis, “when I was running towards the tape I was just thinking ‘this can’t be me, I shouldn’t be here’ and it was just so overwhelming.

“I remember my team manager screaming at me ‘you’re the fastest junior boy in England!’ and even during my lessons at school the week after I was just daydreaming about it all so that’s something that I’ll never forget.

“Last year I won the senior boys English Schools race as well which finished off a hat-trick of age group wins, which also meant a lot to me because of the pressure I was under. I knew I wanted to do it, so did my parents and the team managers, so to actually pull it off and be what I think is only the third person to do it was very special and probably my personal highlight.”

Willis celebrates his ‘hat-trick’ English Schools victory in 2018. Picture: Matt Willis

Now as a first year student at Loughborough University, Willis has taken on all kinds of new challenges, competing internationally at both athletics and triathlon, along with his Maths studies and having time for a bit of saxophone and piano on the side.

It is a collision course of commitments at such a young age that can easily be too much to manage, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing Willis down any time soon.

“If I don’t mess about on my phone too much I usually get everything done,” says Willis, “it does get a bit hectic but I’m in the athlete block at Loughborough so everyone’s in the same boat, working hard and eating well, so if you surround yourself with the right people then they’ll help you progress.

“Triathlon’s definitely been really helpful though even with things like a lack of motivation. Because you’ve always got two other sports to focus on if one isn’t going well to keep ticking over.”

Triathlon commitments certainly haven’t hindered Willis’ athletics career. Photo: Pia Totschnig

In fact it was this aspect in particular that may have proved the difference in getting the 19-year-old his place at the world championships, after a foot injury after Christmas left him unable to run for six weeks.

At the time it was tough to take, with the injury coming less than three weeks after grabbing team silver with Great Britain at the European Cross Country Championships

But unlike most of his rivals, the two other parts of triathlon were there firmly amongst his athletics armoury, keeping him fit and ready for his return from injury in February.

“It was really annoying (to get the injury),” says Willis, “because I was really motivated off the back of the Europeans but I think I just got carried away. Leading into Europeans I’d been really focused on my running and leaving the swimming and cycling a bit adrift, so the injury allowed me to re-focus on those so that coming into the Triathlon season I’m more prepared.

“It meant when I got back into training for cross country I completely surprised myself because in my first session I was hitting some good times and my foot hadn’t flared up so straight away I knew things were going in the right direction.”

By the time the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships arrived in March, the GB international was ready for a triumphant return as he made the short trip to Prestwold Hall in Lougborough, with yet another British vest at stake.

And all the extra multi-sport muscle proved the difference once again, with Willis clinching gold and even having the time to grab and lift up the finish line tape in a Triathlon-esque celebration

“I was kind of the underdog going into that race,” says Willis “I’d been injured for six weeks after Christmas so couldn’t do any running, but by the time of the race I knew I was back in shape. So about half-way through I thought ‘If I can push on here then I can get this in the bag’, but I don’t think anyone else really expected it.”

Willis battling to a superb silver medal at the 2018 Great Edinburgh XC. Photo: Matt Willis

Now as he finally reaches the cross country world stage this weekend, expectations about the future may inevitably begin to rise for the multi-sport prospect, aiming for one last big race ahead of his switch to track and triathlon in the summer.

Aims on the other side of the sport remain high as well, with figures such as young European 10,000m finalist and international triathlete Alex Yee giving Willis the inspiration to keep striving for more.

“I’m intending to follow in Alex’s footsteps,” says Willis, “he’s done some amazing things like his recent second-place at the ITU World Series race in Abu Dhabi behind Mario Mola who’s also the world champion.

“I think generally I back myself when no-one else does because I know what I’ve got in my locker, so I usually can pull it out of the bag when the stakes are high.”

With the continued high stakes and constant drive to achieve more, inevitably other aspects of Willis’ life have had to be temporarily set aside.

As well as competing in multiple sports, Willis has also taken up multiple instruments, being a keen player of the piano and the saxophone, which he has also found a way to link into his sporting life from time to time.

“Unfortunately I haven’t been able to bring my piano or keyboard to Loughborough,” says Willis, “but from the prize money I earned at the British Cross Challenge I’m planning to buy a keyboard to have here with me.

“I do still have the saxophone though which occasionally gets brought out, but I’ve been missing the piano quite a lot because after training I used to always go on the piano a bit and sometimes learn a new tune because I found it quite relaxing, so hopefully I’ll be able to do that again soon.

“I used to play the clarinet a bit as well but now it’s just the two instruments, so I’m not planning on doing a triathlon of instruments just yet!”

Gold is now becoming a familiar taste for Inter Counties champion Willis. Photo: Matt Willis

Now, amongst the madness, mud, multi-sport and music, the focus turns to Denmark and the chance to take on the globe at the world cross country championships this weekend.

The last world championships in 2017 was further afield in Uganda, with the searing heat and solid turf proving difficult for many European athletes to overcome.

But now, with this one being much closer to home, the young European Cross Country medallist is highly optimistic that the trip to Aarhus can put both him and his team-mates in a good place for the future.

“It’s a really good opportunity for us Brits to push on,” says Willis, “it’ll be conditions that we’re more used to with all the mud and hills in a really tough course. So hopefully I can use that to my advantage and get a good result out of it, but at the end of the day I’m also there to have a good time and to just soak up the experience.

“I always love being able to travel the world, experience new things and meet new people, so to just to get the opportunity to do that is great for me.”

And given the performances he has been able to conjure in the past, there is every chance that Willis may have something special hidden in his locker as he once again enters the big stage.