From walk-on to two-time All-American


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Steven Willey ran from one end of the track to the other in a shiny new pair of black Nike spikes. He glided over each wicket placed before him with ease, working on his foot speed.

As he came to the end of his run, he finished near a scoreboard-type display showcasing Iowa's all-time indoor record holders. The fourth row reads "400 meters S. Willey 46.75 2010."

The senior runner is coming off of one of the more impressive season-long performances in recent Hawkeye memory. After breaking the school record in the indoor 400 meters and being named second-team All-Big Ten in the event, Willey won the outdoor Big Ten championship in the 400 with a time of 46.12.

After finishing 15th in the 400 at the NCAAs, he was named an All-American for his efforts. Willey also earned All-American status as a member of last year's 1,600-meter relay team. On Sunday, the coaches awarded him with the Most Valuable Athlete award for the 2010 season.

And yet the numbers, records, and accolades nearly didn't happen.

"When Steven first got here, he was almost on the cut list," assistant coach Joey Woody said. "He was struggling with some of the workouts and he was struggling with a lot of the drills.

"[He] was pretty uncoordinated when he first got here."

Willey came to Iowa City as a walk-on. The Onawa, Iowa, native didn't start to flourish in track until his senior year at West Monona High School.

His previous three years had been spent on an asphalt track at West Monona. It wasn't until Willey's senior year that a rubberized surface was installed.

"It was just a handicap," the 22-year-old said, noting he was never able to wear spikes on the asphalt track. "It's why I developed late."

Luckily for him, it wasn't too late. He finished second in the 400 and 800 meters and third in the 100 and 200 meters at the state meet his senior year. Those performances were good enough to catch the attention of some Iowa coaches.

"One of the things I noticed about him right away was it seemed like in the last 30 meters of a race, he had an extra gear," Iowa head coach Larry Wieczorek said. "That showed me a lot of heart. It looks like he's going to die and then all of a sudden here he comes at the finish."

Despite Willey's early struggles as a Big Ten athlete, he made improvements by the end of his first year with the Hawkeyes. He ran a season-best 47.47 in the 400 meters at the Big Ten outdoor championships, just missing the finals.

The turning point came in his sophomore season. During the NCAA regional at Oklahoma, Willey ran his first sub-47-second 400.

"I think that regional set up the great year that followed last year," Wieczorek said. "When I reflect back, that was the breakthrough that sticks in my mind. That was 'coming of age, this is a big time 400-meter runner.' "

Heading into the 2011 campaign, the two-time All-American is trying to achieve even more. Willey's goals for the 400 and 1,600-meter relay team are the same: win the Big Tens and finish top-three at nationals — both indoors and outdoors.

While Willey admits his goals are "lofty," the senior is accustomed to achieving high marks.

His dad, Greg Willey, used to coach women's track at the University of South Dakota. Having a track background, he wasn't sure his son would reach the goals Steven had set prior to last season.

"I kind of doubted him; those were some big goals," Greg Willey said. "I don't doubt him anymore."

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