Anna Willard isn’t sure how much faster she can run. The one thing she is certain of, is that she has yet to run her best race.

That’s a heady statement coming from the Telstar Regional High School graduate from Greenwood, who earlier this month won the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA championships with a time of 9 minutes, 38.08 seconds, while running for the University of Michigan.

That is the fastest time ever recorded by a collegiate athlete. It is also the fastest time by an American this year.

Despite having already lopped off nearly 30 seconds from her previous best, Willard believes she can still run faster this year. That quest begins today at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in Indianapolis.

“It wasn’t the hardest race I’ve ever ran by any standard,” Willard said by telephone earlier this week from Ann Arbor, Mich. “Even now, 9:38 didn’t feel very hard at all. I kicked really, really hard, so I know there’s a lot more left.

“I feel like I can get the American record – if not this week, then definitely in Europe.”

That’s another nine seconds (9:29.32).

She’ll embark on that pursuit with the full backing of Nike. Willard and the shoe/apparel company came to a verbal agreement last Friday and will sign a 5½-deal in Indianapolis this week. Nike will pay her a stipend, cover travel expenses and provide shoes and gear.

Like the steeplechase, Willard has successfully navigated the barriers, beginning with her start at Telstar to her status as a professional runner.

After winning high school state championships in both cross country and track (800 and 1,600), Willard went to Brown, where she rewrote the record book for distance runners.

Willard discovered her steeplechase ability by accident. Because of the five 30-inch barriers per lap, including one over a water hazard, steeplechasers are typically more athletic than distance runners. A former basketball player at Telstar, Willard thought her athleticism could handle the complex event when she volunteered to fill in for an injured teammate. In that first race, Willard broke the school record.

That breakthrough came at a time when Willard felt frustrated because her other times weren’t improving.

“As I trained for the steeple, my body responded to it very well,” Willard said. “My other races started getting better. It all piggy-backed after that.”

By the time she graduated from Brown in 2006, Willard was an All-American, finishing sixth in last year’s steeplechase in 10:06.83.

With one year of eligibility remaining, Willard enrolled at Michigan to study for her Masters and run for the powerful Wolverines. She discovered a whole new culture of athletics in Ann Arbor.

“It’s way, way different, Willard said. “It’s a lot of the small stuff that just adds up. I’m not sure where to start.”

Trainers who make sure water and Gatorade are at every practice. Free massages. Higher per diems on the road. Academic center adjacent to the track. Training center at the track. Free shoes and gear. Doctors at the athlete’s disposal.

Willard thrived in that culture, which allowed her to work toward the big picture and not worry about the little stuff.

She set personal records in nearly every event between the 800 and 5,000 meters. After winning the steeplechase, 1,500 and 3,000 at the Big 10 Championships – the first Michigan runner to win three titles in one championship – she entered the NCAAs as the No. 3 seed.

“It was almost anticlimactic, because I thought it was going to be harder than it was,” Willard said. “I was feeling really comfortable with about three laps left. I could tell the other girl was not feeling as comfortable as I was. Her hurdle form wasn’t as good. Every lap, I got more confident.”

Willard broke away with 500 meters left and won the race by 8 seconds.

It is the ease of the NCAA victory that has Willard positive faster times are in her future as she steps up in competition.

A 1-2-3 finish Saturday in Indianapolis would earn Willard a spot on the U.S. team that competes in the world championships in Osaka, Japan.

The ultimate goal is the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which will feature the women’s steeplechase for the first time.

With her graduate studies done, Willard will remain at Michigan to train and help as a volunteer coach. She sees no reason to change after her breakthrough year.

To get some needed international experience, Willard will spend next month in Europe competing in whatever meets her agent can arrange.

“My times are good for America, but not good for Europe. I’ve got to kick that up a notch,” Willard said. “It’ll be a great opportunity. It’ll make me realize that you’re just a little fish, after all.”

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