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From hobby to Olympic hopeful

It's not Lake Michigan, but England will do for Chicago Olympian

July 26, 2012|By Scott Bolohan | For RedEye

Chicago might be the Windy City, but no one would confuse it with the Windsurfing City.

But that didn't stop Chicago native Bob Willis from becoming the first windsurfer not from California or Florida to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. Not bad for what started as just a hobby on Lake Michigan.

Willis, 25, sailed at the Columbia Yacht Club starting at age 8 and picked up windsurfing in his spare time. That hobby evolved into a full-time job for Willis as he trains year-round. His dedication paid off after winning both Olympic qualifiers to become the youngest Olympic windsurfer since 1988.

While Willis has the look of a typical surfer with his dark tan, laid-back attitude and pretty awesome hair, he is serious about the sport, spending the past few months training in Weymouth, England, site of the sailing events in the London Games. RedEye caught up to Willis before he headed to the Olympics.

You've got to be getting really excited.

I am. Everybody has been pumping me up. You can see it in everybody's eyes.

How did you get started with windsurfing in Chicago?

I was in the Columbia Yacht Club and I started racing sailboats and got involved in local sailing teams. I got pretty good at it and ended up traveling all over competing in races. But I got into windsurfing as an outlet to sailing with my brother and a friend. We just picked up windsurfing casually. We would just do it out of the Columbia Yacht Club or sometimes we would dive down to Wolf Lake. I was at the age where I could get really into it and I brought my sailboating background into windsurfing and started getting competitive when I was 17 or 18 years old.

Is there much of a windsurfing scene in Chicago?

I think there's a small pocket of windsurfers in Chicago. It's not as big as sailing for sure, but there are some. It's not as well-known in Chicago. Most of the people who do it come from the coasts.

How did living in Chicago help you become an Olympic windsurfer?

The unique thing about Lake Michigan is there is a huge variety of winds and water you train on. Sometimes you'll have no wind and completely flat water and sometimes the wind will really pick up and it'll get pretty wavy, so in that sense it's a great place to train. It's a little difficult to do training in Chicago with the winter and all the changes in weather, so I do most of my training overseas.

What's a typical training week for you?

It's a full-time gig. We train more like triathletes, which might be a surprise to some people that we don't just hang out at the beach all day. In a typical week on the water, we do usually four days on and one day off. We'll do breakfast, work out, a couple hours on the water, lunch, and a couple hours on the bike. I'm very diligent with my nutrition as well. I'm actually a little bit bigger than the average windsurfer.

Are you out on the lake in the middle of January?

No. This year I was in Australia training. The 2011 World Championships were in Perth, so I was there for almost all winter. Then I head down to Florida for training. I'm definitely not sailing in January on the lake.

Has it always been a dream of yours to make the Olympics?

I wouldn't say it's been a life dream of mine, but once I got into sailing I always wanted to. Windsurfing kind of came after that. My ex-brother-in-law sailed in the Olympics in 2004 in Athens and we went over there to watch. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and that's when I really got inspired to work for it.

When you found out you were going to London, what was going through your head?

It was incredible. There are two events to qualify for our Olympics and I had a point lead going into our second event. When I found out, I was actually sitting in the ice bath recovering and my team leader and head coach were in the lounge and they called me in and my heart dropped. It took a while for it to really sink in.

Many people don't even know windsurfing is an Olympic sport. Why should people tune in?

It's much different than all the other Olympic sports and different than all the other styles of sailing as well. Windsurfing is very fast. In the Olympics there are going to be 38 athletes who are all going to be competing on the same course up to 25 miles an hour. It's very dynamic and it's a spectacle to watch even if you don't know anything about sailing or windsurfing.

What are you most excited about the Olympics?

I'm actually really excited about the race. The sailing in Weymouth is some of the best I've ever had. It will be really spectacular with the world as your audience. There will be bleachers set up too. We never really have an audience; it's mostly online followers and whatnot. To race in front of a couple thousand fans will be something special to actually see and hear people cheering.

Do you have those dreams about standing on the podium and getting a medal?

Absolutely. As we're getting closer to the Games it's something I've really thought about. Every athlete thinks about standing on the podium getting a medal draped around your neck while the national anthem plays. I have that thought in my mind all the time. It would be unbelievable if that happened.

Scott Bolohan is a RedEye special contributor.

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