LONDON (CBS) – With opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Games just hours away, the full impact of being in the Olympics has hit Bob Willis like a gale on Lake Michigan.
The Chicago-native is about to fulfill one of his life goals when he competes in Men’s Windsurfing as a member of Team USA.
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“I’m beginning to fully realize exactly what I am doing,” Willis told WBBM Newsradio. “It has been a long time goal of my mine and it’s pretty special to accomplish that goal and to be competing in front of the eyes of billions.”
Influenced by older siblings, Willis began sailing when he was 8-years old at Chicago’s Columbia Yacht Club. He began with small boats, progressed through the junior sailing program and then began racing. But during his teenage years, Willis turned his attention away from sailing.
“When I was about 15 or 16-years old, I picked up windsurfing with a group of friends including my brother. We got into it as a bit of an outlet from sailing and often times we would go windsurfing right after sailing practice or sometimes we would drive down to Wolf Lake and windsurf there as well.”
Something about windsurfing stuck with Willis and as he got older he applied his sailboat racing experience to racing windsurfers, which can best be described as oversized surfboards with riggings and a sail. Sailors have to pump a boom back and forth to catch the air and get the craft moving. The constant moving of the sail creates artificial wind. All that moving makes RS:X class racing hard work.
“Our competition is 11 races, two races a day except for the last day and that’s the medal race for the top ten competitors,” Willis explained. “Our races last between 35 and 40 minutes and they are very intense, physical and very dynamic.” Windsurfers commonly reach speeds of 30 mph.
Willis earned his spot on Team USA last year after top finishes at regattas in England and Australia. One of the events took place at the Summer Games venue in Weymouth, England where he will compete starting July 31. Being able to train on the water there has allowed Willis to experience a wide variety of conditions and better prepare for the upcoming races.
“Top ten is the goal,” said Willis about where he would like to finish at the London Olympics but will push himself to do much better. “I’ve had some really strong results in the past twelve months or so and I think if I can piece together ten really solid races, I can put myself into the medal race. From there I will have a shot at winning a medal.”
Willis, 25, graduated from Chicago’s Francis W. Parker High School in 2005 and earned a degree in economics from Connecticut College. In 2008, he tried to win a spot on Team USA for the Beijing Olympics but finished third in trials. While he is older this time around, Willis’ youth could still be an obstacle.
“I am a bit younger and inexperienced compared to a lot of other competitors who I will be competing against for the three medals. Most of the people in the top ten are between the ages of 29-35 years old and have at least one or two Olympics under their belts. I am at a bit of disadvantage there being 25 and this being my first Olympics.”
With his dark tan and surfer looks, Willis might confuse people who try to guess where he’s from. His Chicago roots set him apart from other competitors who grew up on the East or West coasts. And while he didn’t learn to sail on an ocean, Willis still values his experience on Lake Michigan.
“The conditions we see on Lake Michigan offer a huge variety. It can be windy and wavy or it can be white air and flat water. Many people overlook Chicago sailing and when they think about sailing in the U-S, they primarily think about the East Coast hubs of Annapolis and Newport and also on the West Coast. In actuality, there is a huge sailing scene in Chicago with a lot of good talent coming out of the city’s junior and youth programs.”
Willis could be one of the last U-S Olympic windsurfers. The event, which began at the 1984 Summer Games, is replaced by kite boarding in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.
You can follow Bob Willis on Twitter @bobsails2012 or become a fan on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bob-Willis-2012-Olympic-Campaign/226884300865