BENITA WILLIS (6 May 1979 –
Benita was born in Mackay, Queensland and developed into one of Australia’s greatest female distance runners. She was active from an early age, enjoying a range of sports and physical pursuits including motorbike riding and shooting. She later studied at the University of Queensland.
In between, Benita had a successful school athletic career. In 1993 she won the Australian All Schools under 15 1500m in 4.34.71.The following year she was back at the same meet to take gold in the under 17 age group over both the 800 and 1500 metres distance, retaining both titles in 1995.
But Benita was faced with a dilemma for so talented was she that selection in the national junior hockey team also beckoned. She pursued both sports for a period which meant missing the 1996 World Junior Athletics Championships at home in Sydney.
That year was not without accolades in track and field. Benita’s school athletic career ended at the Australian All-Schools in Perth in December when she won the treble of the 800, 1500 and 3000 metres, having earlier in the year won the National junior 800 and 1500 metres crowns.
Fortunately she then made the call to concentrate on athletics, taking up a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, training under Dr Dick Telford.
In the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics, there were some encouraging signs but nothing spectacular. In 1997 Benita finished second in the National senior 1500 metres before later that year winning the National junior 4km cross country. The following year brought eventual selection for the World Juniors – where at Annecy in France she finished seventh in the 1500 metres.
International team selection continued in 1999 and competing in the World University Games in Palma de Mallorca, Spain there was a promising fifth placing in the 1500 metres.
When the year 2000 rolled around Benita was the unlucky athlete in a hotly contested four-way battle for three Australian places in the 1500 metres although she was selected for the Olympic Games for the 5000m. She finished sixth in her heat but did not advance to the final missing out by just two places.
The World Indoor Championships in 2001 were in Lisbon, Portugal and after a strong second place in the first heat of the 3000 metres Benita ran an outstanding final to finish sixth in a new Oceania record of 8:42.75. This was followed by travel to Oostende, Belgium for the World Cross Country Championships where she ran the 4.1km short course, again finishing sixth.
The 2001 World Championships were held in Edmonton, Canada and Benita again ran the 5000 metres - this time running a much faster heat to qualify for the final. However, she could not replicate her time but finished a solid 12th. Later that year there was a fourth placing at the same distance in the Goodwill Games at home in Brisbane to round out a very good year.
The athletics world could not help but notice the rise of the versatile Australian.
Benita clearly had a good feel for cross country running and in 2002 at the World Championships in Dublin, Ireland and running the short race over a 4.2km course she improved on her previous year taking fourth. She was then off to her first Commonwealth Games – in Manchester, England to run both the 1500 and 5000 metres. The 5000 metres delivered a sixth place but she was eliminated in the heats of the 1,500 metres. Soon after, she opted to join Nic Bideau’s training squad.
The Games were followed by a trip to the Berlin Grand Prix where Benita set a new Australian record of 14.47.60 for the 5000m. Two weeks later at the IAAF World Cup in Madrid, Spain representing Oceania she was fourth in the 5000 metres. Finishing just outside the medals was becoming a regular occurrence but there was more of that to come – at least in the short term.
The following year 2003 saw Benita take on four major international events. The World Indoors in Birmingham where she finished seventh in the 3000m final was a defining moment in her progress, Benita realising that she had difficulty in out-kicking those who could keep up with her. This was reinforced at the World Cross Country two weeks later in Lausanne, Switzerland where she finished fifth in the 4km short race. She and coach Bideau there and then made the decision that it would be the long race thereafter.
But before then there was further business in 2003. At the World Championships in Paris Benita ran determinedly in the 10000 metres final. She ran 30.37.68 finishing eighth. The time remained Benita’s career best and in 2018 endures as the national record.
To complete a busy year, Benita moved up in distance to run World Half Marathon in Vilamoura, Portugal, finally securing an international medal – a bronze in 1:09:26.
Benita started the next year 2004 with a victory over the acclaimed Ethiopian Deratu Tulu in Japan before heading to World Cross Country in Brussels, Belgium and this time in the long race of 8km claimed gold by one of the biggest margins ever – 12 seconds.
This was the greatest win of her long career – in part achieved by knowing when to make a break on those running with her, making two such crucial moves towards the end of the race. She had mastered the by-then dominant Africans as had perhaps surprisingly been predicted by Tulu pre-race.
Benita’s second Olympics in Athens in 2004 brought selection in the 10000 metres but a disappointing outcome. Back to more favourable surroundings at the 2005 World Cross Country in Saint-Galmier, France, she was again the first non-African home but this time in seventh.
The 2006 Commonwealth Games were a home Games in Melbourne and Benita again ran the 10000 metres on the track finishing fourth. She was disappointed.
Benita was by now a permanent cast-member at the World Cross-Country and with the 2006 edition closer to home in Fukuoka, Japan and just after the Commonwealth Games she was again amongst the favourites, finishing fourth individually in the long race and leading the Australian girls to a bronze in the teams’ event.
Benita ran the 10000 metres at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan but had she not been tripped, resulting in a fall, she would have finished higher than her 17th. But by now much of her career was focussed on road running. For the 2008 Olympics in Beijing she ran the marathon finishing 21st.
Benita featured in some of the most prestigious marathons and road races outside of the Olympics. Her fastest marathon of 2:22:36, a national record, was in Chicago 2006. She was second in Houston in 2012 and seventh in the 2007 London Marathon.
She also won the Berlin Half Marathon in 2007 and the Las Vegas Half in 2011. She was runner-up in both the New York and Newcastle half marathons in 2006.
She won the famed Chiba International Cross-Country on three occasions - in 2002, 2003 and 2004; the San Silvestre Vallecana in 2004; the Great North Run in 2004; Cinque Mulini 2005; Freihofer’s Run for Women 2006, 2007 and 2008; the Great Yorkshire Run 2007 and the Great Edinburgh Run in 2007.
But there were still times for World Cross Country appearances – she was 11th in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2008 and 17th in Bydgoszcz, Poland in 2010.
Benita’s final representative run was the marathon in London in 2012, her fourth Olympics. But hampered by injury she finished 100th bringing a close to an illustrious distance running career having represented Australia on 26 occasions.
Throughout her career Benita won five national titles and set eleven national records. As 2018 began she remained the national record holder at 2000m, 3000m (indoor and out), 5000m, 10000m, 10km road and for the marathon.
Benita has retained a close association with the sport, working with Queensland Athletics and leading Athletics Australia’s development of junior sport policy and serving as a member of its Athlete Advisory Group. She was elected to the IAAF Athletes Commission in 2017.
Athletics Australia Statistician
Acknowledgements: Mark Butler, IAAF World Junior Statistics Handbook, Kingston 2002; Mark Butler, IAAF Istanbul 2012 Statistics Handbook; Mark Butler IAAF Statistics Book Moscow 2013; Wikipedia; Peter Hamilton, Paul Jenes and Fletcher McEwen, Australian Historical Results; Nic Bideau; Brian Roe