The Victory Lap: Willy Fink🏆
This week I sat down with Under Armour’s Willy Fink. Originally from Maumee, Ohio, would go on to graduate from Eastern Michigan University with an 8:40 steeplechase and 13:43 5000m. But knowing that he had more potential left, Willy continued to run after college and has improved to run 7:44 for 3000m and 13:16 for 5000m. If you’re looking for a guy who is willing to race often and do so bravely — never scared to make a bold move from far out or stick his nose in it verse guys with faster bests, then may I suggest signing up for the Willy Fink fan club.
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When did you discover running and when did you know you had a unique ability to do it? Did anything, in particular, draw you to the sport?
So it actually goes back to elementary school. We did the PACER Test. It’s that test everyone does growing up — it beeps, you run to the other side of the gym before the next beep. And we were doing that in elementary school… in 5th grade or something. And I just went really long in it, and took up the whole gym period.
The plan was to have half the class run, and then when they all finished, the other half was supposed to go. But I was in the first group and the other half didn't get to go that day because I just kept going. That was kind of when I realized I was pretty good at running.
I was still interested in other sports and I wanted to be like, athletic in general. I tried football and baseball and soccer and all that stuff, but I'm not all that well-coordinated, so I would do really well in the conditioning phase and then not so much in the rest of the sport.
Throughout high school I realized I was pretty good at running, and I really did enjoy it. I think that's one of the reasons I was good at it — because it was kind of fun for me. But yeah, it started all the way back to elementary school and it just kind of grew from there.
I think I had a tweet this indoor season or last commenting on the EMU kit being the best looking in the entire meet. I absolutely love it. What led you to Eastern Michigan for college?
Yeah, the singlets are awesome — they're great. We've had the same design since like, the sixties or something. But yeah, it wasn't just the singlets. Coming out of high school I was okay. I was not great.
I think my times were like 4:14 and 9:21. So they were respectable, but I wasn't winning state championships and I wasn't getting heavily recruited by Power Five schools or anything like that. I did a bunch of visits and just really liked the culture at Eastern.
They’re good in the Mid-American Conference. We were consistently winning cross country titles and competing for track titles as well. So it was a great transition for me, going from high school to this pretty good mid-major program. I felt like I would have a good opportunity to continue growing and not just get thrown to the wolves and hate every second and just lose every race by a ton. It was just a nice step and I felt like it would be a good opportunity to continue building upon my career.
Did you get everything you wanted out of your college experience and when did the idea of running post-collegiately work its way into your brain?
So the first part of that question, I didn't really get everything I wanted out of college. I was really focused on the steeplechase and I was kind of saying earlier, I'm not the most athletic and coordinated person in the world. So I could never quite figure out my form and really just even staying fully healthy throughout a season of steepling was a challenge. So I do kind of wish I had focused more on just the 5000m.
And running after college wasn't always something that I even knew about! None of my family were runners at all. And so I didn't really know — basically, growing up I didn't know professional running was a thing. It's not like I was watching, you know, pro races while I was in high school or anything like that.
I didn't really understand all of that until I got to college. That was when I found out that professional running existed and I realized that it could be an option. But still, it never really seemed attainable. Looking at the times that pros were running while most of them were going into college… you know, I hadn't even broken fifteen for the 5000m yet. It just seemed so crazy to me, and it felt so far off from what I thought was possible.
So it didn't really become something I was seriously thinking about until basically my last year of college. Because as I was kind of saying, I didn't really feel like I was done with a sport. I felt like I had more in me than what I had done in college. So that was kind of when I was like, alright, I want to keep going, at least for a couple of years, to see what I can do and keep running.
And I'm really glad I did. I've gotten faster pretty much every year. There haven't been many years I haven't PB’d. Actually I don't think there's a year at all that I haven't PB’d in at least one event. It's been really cool to just keep grinding and keep improving and just see how fast I can get.
Yeah you’re going on ten straight years of PB’s in some events! Is there any key for your consistency?
I think part of it is just the excitement that I feel every time I PR. But then I feel like I've never had a race that was totally perfect either, you know? So every time I run fast, I’m excited, but I'm also aware that, you know, there's these few things that I could have done differently. Things that, you know, could have made the difference of a few more seconds. So there's always also that excitement of knowing there's more there.
And then obviously staying healthy is a big part of that. Just to be able to continually build on year after year of training — that’s huge. ButI think it's mostly that excitement that I've never lost. I think running different events helps as well with that. There's never been a year where I've exclusively run a bunch of 5000m races or only run a bunch of 1500s. So I'm always kind of running a few different events. And I think that helps a lot.
You’ve had two consecutive years running 13:16-17 for 5k at BU. Are there any steps you think you need to take to get that sort of performance out of your body at US champs?
Yeah, I mean, I think that's the question I need to figure out, really. But what we're going for this year is periodizing our training a little bit better. And just kind of focusing more on bigger races. The plan was to take one swing at a fast 5000m. And then the next few weeks, just focus purely on getting ready and sharp for USAs. Whereas in the past I've just kind of been chasing times, every other week or so.
I think racing less and putting more emphasis on those big races is really going to help this year. That’s what I'm hoping for, and I’m hoping it all comes together.
How has the transition to Cory Leslie been?
It hasn’t been that long — I think he came on in October. But it's been really easy. In terms of workouts, I've never been one to believe that any single coach has the perfect recipe. It's more about training as a whole and plotting your season as a whole and looking at it from a big picture.
So I don't really stress over, you know, the exact number of miles I'm running, or you know, what the exact workout I'm doing is each week. And I think that makes it really easy to trust my coach. I know what a hard workout feels like in general. And I know what I should feel like going into a race.
As long as I have a coach who's willing to work with me and make sure I know what I'm doing and why, and that I feel good going into races, I’m happy. I feel like the minute details probably don't matter as much as a lot of people think. So from that perspective, yeah, the transition has been going really well. And just in general, the training isn't that different from what I was doing before, so that helps, too.
Is there anyone you’ve looked up to in running?
That's a good question. Not really. When I was in college I sort of looked up to the big American steeplers. Guys like Jager, Cory, and Dan Huling. But I always saw them as runners as well as people. I just want to be the best version of myself. I don’t necessarily want to be like someone else.
Are you racing anything between now and USA’s?
Pretty much just USAs. I was originally thinking about doing a 1500. But yeah, I was at the distance Classic in the 5000m. And that didn't go too well. I think I picked up like a chest cold or something and kind of fell apart. So now I’m mostly just focusing on getting healthy again and getting after it at USAs. Like I was saying earlier, we’re just trying to focus more on these bigger races and really making those a priority.
After USAs I’ll probably try to run some of these road miles. I think Guardian and Liberty and a few others will be on the table. There’s quite a few good ones that are really close to each other.
What are you most excited about for the next couple of years?
I've had a lot of pretty big changes in my life the past couple of years. or really even just the past year, I got married. We moved from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Maryland and got a house. So I've just done some pretty big adult moves. So I'm really excited to settle into a new groove and live this new life.
Thoughts on who is going to make this men’s 10,000m team?
I mean, it's hard to bet against someone like Grant Fisher. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the same team as the Olympics. But then there's also Shadrack in there. If he's healthy again, he could be a real threat. So probably the three will come out of those four, I would expect.
Real quick. Do you happen to remember the Guardian mile in 2018 or 2019?
Yeah I think so, what about it?
The funny thing is, that was the only time I've ever had a conversation with you before now — it was at that meet. And so in the race, I kind of accidentally tripped up Kyle a little bit. And I just remember after it, you made a joke about like, throwing me off the bridge. At that moment — you're a little bit bigger than me — I was like, oh, shit. I've just always thought that was funny.
That sounds nothing like me… Okay, listen, I swear I’m a changed man since I retired.
Thank you so much to Willy for taking the time to have this conversation with Mac! Big thank you to Under Armour for sponsoring this week’s Victory Lap and making it available for all readers. If you enjoyed this interview and want to read more just like it - please consider subscribing to our premium subscription. This initiative has raised over $20,400 for elite athletes!