Andrew Willis was an innovator and achiever – seizing upon and extending those well-established and recognised traditions in Tasmanian athletics.
When he finally lost an epic battle with cancer this week, Andrew left a wide and varied tapestry of accomplishment with an impact on myriad lives and organisations.
As in so many other aspects of his 61 year life, he was tenacious and determined to stick around, overcoming significant adversity on multiple occasions.
It is almost impossible to state emphatically in which area of service to his chosen sport that Andrew had the greatest impact - for those contributions were made in almost every conceivable way.
Perhaps as an athlete his achievements were not quite as high but sometimes were no less memorable - most notably when he introduced to club athletics the concept of stand-up starting blocks.
Andrew was convinced that his messy contraption of footplates, wires and handles better suited his starting style. But before he got the chance to convince the masses, it was outlawed – with no less than the international governing body called in to affirm that the athlete’s hands needed to be in contact with the ground for the start of sprint events.
He won a state championships medal or two but from a young age it was clear that his greater contributions to the sport would be elsewhere. That he earned the Athletics Australian Platinum Award for forty years of service to administration and officiating at the end of 2013 is an indication of his tender years when that contribution began.
His first club was in his home town of Scottsdale and was then as Newstead Harriers but before long he made his mark as one of the inaugural members and founders of Tamar AC. It provided the platform for Andrew to display his many talents and skills.
The Club grew quickly both in numbers and in terms of success. Andrew’s penchant for recruiting was quickly to the fore but equally so his determination to value add to every new member’s experience.
In turn this gave rise to Andrew’s formidable career as a coach. He was almost immediately successful both in progressing the careers of athletes with ability and in upskilling and enthusing the club man and woman. He had an eye for talent but critically also developed the knowledge and ability to make every athlete who wanted to be better, just that and often even more.
Andrew was an excellent coach and made a difference to the lives and careers of countless athletes. The results of his athletes consistently indicated that if he had sought the opportunity, he may well have been an exceptional coach in broader terms. But so many of his athletes would be of that view regardless.
Andrew provided significant support to other coaches through courses and clinics and one-to-one mentoring.
Like so many younger men and women in Tasmanian athletics, Andrew was motivated by and mentored under the Barwick/Briggs/Ruddock tradition. He saw no reason why northern interclub should not be conducted in a way that every athlete would have their performances fully recognised at all levels.
He worked tirelessly to ensure that the St Leonards Centre had the best facilities and equipment – seeking funding for resurfacing and lighting and ensuring first class and safe delivery of events such as pole vault, hammer and discus. He pushed hard for events like the National Schools Knockout Final to be held at the Centre.
As an official he reached the highest levels – serving his country in four major international competitions as a National Technical Official, mostly in track events – the 1996 World Juniors, the 2000 Olympics, the 2001 IAAF Grand Prix Final and the 2006 Commonwealth Games. He took on a range of roles in national events both at home and interstate.
During his years as an athlete Andrew was known to test the application of the odd rule or two. It almost certainly made him difficult to outsmart once he was on the other side of the fence.
In administration his contribution went well beyond his beloved Tamar club, serving at times as president of both Athletics Tasmania and its Northern Branch. But there were also immeasurable hours delivered as a road race and track competition organiser, handicapper and state selector.
He was there at the beginning of Little Athletics in Tasmania when the first clubs were formed and competition began at Invermay Park. And when the Tasmanian Athletic League needed a handicapper, he put his hand up for that as well.
He became a life member of Athletics Tasmania, its Northern Branch and Tamar AC.
There was of course another aspect to Andrew’s life. He was immensely proud of his daughters Joanne and Rachel, stepdaughters Tamieka and Naomi, as well as his expanding brood of grandchildren. And then there was his special partnership in life, business and, fortunately for the sport, in athletics with his wonderful partner Charmaine.
Andrew Willis was both passionate and relentless as he sought to ensure the very best for his athletes and his sport. His wicked sense of humour and willingness to offer sage advice that wasn’t always necessarily so will be missed by friends and colleagues across the Australian athletics family.
Andrew’s funeral service will be held at the Punchbowl Christian Centre, Launceston at 2pm on Tuesday 15 September.
[Brian Roe – 10 September 2015]