Zatopek Legacy – Benita Johnson (nee Willis)

Benita Willis built a career during 2000-2012 that featured 18 major championship appearances in an Australian outfit, a four-time Olympian, Willis is best known for her 10 national records ranging from 2000m to the Marathon, and victory at the 2004 World Cross Country Championships, the only Australian ever to win the prestigious event.

The Mackay native had a number of phenomenal showings at the World Cross Country Championships, racing in 8 editions of the event with a lowest finish of 17th, placing inside the top 10 on 7 occasions in both long and short-course configurations.

Willis’ finishes over grass, mud, snow and gravel cross country courses are testament to the versatility of her abilities across a range of distances, ultimately winning the event in 2004 in Belgium, defeating a set of international athletes who held a combined 28 major championship medals between them, such is the middle to long-distance melting pot that the cross country arena provides.

Willis’ involvement with the Zatopek:10 event began with the Ondieki Under 20 3000m Challenge, winning the event as a junior, cementing her international competitiveness in finishing 7th at the 1998 World Junior Championships in Annecy, France.

Whilst Willis never ran the 10,000m event at the Zatopek:10 event due to the timing of her seasons, her national record was set in a viciously competitive environment, running 30:37.68 in finishing 8th at 2003 World Championships, some 34 seconds faster than the next fastest Australian best time.

22 Sep 2000: Benita Willis of Australia (left) and Ryan Rosemary of Ireland (right) in the Womens 5000m heats at the Olympic Stadium on Day Seven of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Stu Forster /Allsport

When did you first hear about the Zatopek event?

I first heard about Zatopek when I was in about year 10 at school as I came down to Melbourne to run the “Olympic Dream” race (1500m race) and people were talking about Zatopek then. As I grew up in North Queensland, I didn’t know too much about big races around Australia as was generally more focused on hockey and team sports and did athletics with the school season in the last few months of the year. 

At first (when still in high school) I thought Zatopek was just a meet for the 10km and wasn’t till I was a few years older that I knew juniors could race over shorter distances. I moved to Canberra after year 12 to take up a scholarship at the AIS and it was there that I learnt about Zatopek and later that year decided to race the U/20 3km. 

What does the race signify to you in the world of junior Australian athletics?

I think it is a fantastic race of Australia’s best junior runners – all coming together at one meet to run. The 3km is not a major championship event so it mixes up athletes who have speed and endurance all in the same race – tactically this is awesome to see how it plays out. I love tactical races and the year I won this event, finished with a sprint finish. Many of our top athletes today, in the past and I’m sure in the future have won or will win this race as a junior. 

It also signifies Australia’s rich distance running history (being the Ondieki U/20 3km) and the prestige in following someone of Lisa’s calibre as a junior.  

Did your training change at all in the lead up to such a nationally competitive race?

No, I just trained like I normally do but as it was in my first year in Uni (was doing uni full time at University of Canberra), was already on holidays so had a bit more time to relax between training sessions in the weeks before. 

How did the U20 race effect your career progression at the time?

It further motivated me as I did a PB, won the race and enjoyed it too which is the main thing. At the time I was still playing a bit of hockey (as well as training for running at the AIS) so after that I just went with the running, became more committed and continued along that path. This 3km at Zatopek was the 2nd 3km I’d ever done (I was 18/19 I think at the time). 

NANNING, CHINA – 15 OCTOBER 2010: (L-R) Xiaolin Zhu of China, Florence Jebet Kiplagat of Kenya, Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea and Benita Willis of Australia pose during IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Nanning 2010 press conference on October 15, 2010 in Nanning, China. (Photo by Wang Zhao/Getty Images)

Background and interview courtesy of Sean Whipp