Throughout the long road to recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Glacier Peak track star Ethan Willems remained unwavering in his determination to come back even faster than he was before.
But this fast, this soon?
“I always had that dream of coming back and getting times that were faster than my previous years,” he said, “but I never really thought I would be as (fast) as I am right now.”
Just 18 months after suffering an ACL injury that sidelined him for all of last season, Willems is now one of the fastest high school long sprinters in the state.
At the prestigious Pasco Invitational this past Saturday, the Glacier Peak junior ran the 400 meters in a blistering 48.16 seconds to earn a dominant victory against a talent-laden field. According to Athletic.net, it ranks as the fastest time in the entire state this season by a whopping 1.12 seconds. It also was 0.86 seconds faster than former Jackson standout Daniel Arias’ winning time at last year’s Class 4A state championships.
Willems also owns a season-best time of 21.86 seconds in the 200 meters, which ranks No. 1 in the 4A classification and No. 3 in the entire state.
“Sometimes an injury like that is devastating and just kind of derails athletes, (and they) are never the same,” Glacier Peak sprint coach Zach Nelson said. “But what’s special about Ethan is he came back stronger. He just looks better than ever. … You would never know that he tore his ACL. It’s really special what he’s been able to do this year.”
Willems is slated to compete in front of his hometown fans this Saturday during the 31st annual Larry Eason Invitational at Snohomish’s Veterans Memorial Stadium, where he’ll look to continue his impressive comeback season with another strong showing at one of the state’s premier high school track and field meets.
“It’s been awesome, but I just have to give all the glory to God,” Willems said, “because He really helped me through this to get to where I am now.”
Willems began running club track at age 8 and entered the Glacier Peak program as an accomplished sprinter, with experience competing at the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympic Championships.
“Technically and mechanically, he’s so far ahead of most other kids at this level,” Nelson said. “He’s been running track for a long time, and so the way he goes about his business is very professional. … He’s very humble (and) he works very hard at his craft. It’s almost like he’s a professional. It’s really cool to watch.”
Willems excelled as a freshman, running a season-best 49.24 seconds in the 400 meters and advancing to the 4A state finals in the event. His superb freshman campaign ended in disappointing fashion, however, when he was disqualified in the state finals for stepping outside of his lane. But he rebounded with a strong summer that included a trip to the National Junior Olympics, where he placed 12th in the age 15-16 division of the 400 meters.
“He is one of the most mechanically efficient sprinters I have seen — definitely at the high school level,” Nelson said. “And even (if) you compare him to a college athlete, you’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, technically, he may be better than that kid.’ He is so smooth. It looks effortless when he sprints.
“His strides are so powerful,” Nelson added. “He puts so much power and strength into each stride. I think that’s one thing a lot of folks don’t really get about sprinting — each time, it’s like a hammer coming down to the ground. He is just so powerful and quick. … He’s a machine.”
However, with one false step in the fall of 2017, Willems’ path took a hard turn. The fateful moment occurred on the gridiron, during his first varsity football game for Glacier Peak.
“I was going up for an interception, and I just took one step too far forward with my right leg,” Willems said. “I twisted back to the ball to try to get to it, and my knee just popped and I fell to the ground in pain.”
Doctors originally thought it was a sprain, but tests ultimately revealed a torn ACL.
“I was devastated,” Willems said. “… I was kind of in tears. It was hard hearing that I wouldn’t be able to run for a whole season.”
After undergoing surgery that winter, he made it his mission to come back even faster than before.
“People would always ask me, ‘Are you ever going to be as fast as you were?’” Willems said. “And that made me motivated.”
Four weeks after surgery, he started physical therapy. About a month after that, he began slowly jogging. And from there, he kept making gradual progress — day by day.
“I started picking up the pace, running longer,” said Willems, who still attended most of Glacier Peak’s track practices last season despite being sidelined. “There was still tons of swelling. It wasn’t easy. … (There was) a lot of pain in my knee still. I just kept pushing through it, because I was just determined to get back.”
Willems said he reached full health again by last summer. From there, it was a matter of rebuilding leg strength, getting back in shape and making up for lost time. With an offseason of dedicated training and some indoor meets this past winter, he paved the foundation for this spring’s comeback campaign.
“He was doing a lot of training trying to get back in shape (to) where he feels like he should’ve been,” Glacier Peak track and field coach Loren Childers said. “He came into this season in phenomenal shape. … His work ethic is second to none on the team.”
It’s all paid massive dividends this season, with the highlight thus far being his scorching-fast 400 meters last weekend in Pasco. When he saw his time, Willems could hardly believe it.
“I was freaking out,” he said. “I was like, ‘No way I just ran that.’”
Even more impressive was that it came in cold, wet, windy weather.
“I think probably the most remarkable thing was he did that in not great conditions,” Nelson said. “This was not (personal-record) weather, and he still went out there and set a huge PR.”
Willems also won the 200 meters in Pasco with a time of 22.30 seconds, which at that point was a personal best. But it didn’t last long, as he improved that time by more than 0.4 seconds Thursday in his most recent meet.
“He’s really kind of riding that high right now after a full season of just recovering and working hard,” Childers said. “The payoff is big for him right now, and it’s only going to get better. We’ve still got quite a bit of track left this season.”
Indeed, there’s still plenty of time for Willems to whittle his times even more as he pursues the ultimate goal of a state title.
“He’s going for the state championship,” Nelson said. “That’s what he wants. That’s his goal. And as of right now, he’s certainly on that trajectory. … He’s just on a tear so far this season. He has big goals in mind, and I’m really excited to see where he goes in May.”