“Three o’clock. You’re out!” It’s a refrain Luke Willson often heard as a young baseball player growing up in Canada.
But now, years later, Willson is hoping his third foray into playing the top-level sport will pay off.
Willson, who became a National Football League (NFL) tight end after choosing football over baseball, set his sights on qualifying for Paris 2024 Olympic Games – in track cycling.
The 33-year-old ended his NFL career two years ago due to health issues and was cycling with his parents after moving house.
It has turned into more than just a hobby with Willson proving to be as adept on two wheels as he is at ball sports.
“It was like retiring suddenly, and I still feel young and I want to try again to go pro, Olympics or whatever,” he told CBC.
Luke Willson representing Canada
Having not been able to represent his country during his American football days, Willson said he was encouraged by memories of wearing a Maple Leaf on his jersey.
Willson played first base for Canada in the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championship (now known as the Under-18 Baseball World Cup) on home soil, counting future Major League Baseball stars among his teammates.
“Being in Edmonton, having ‘Canada’ on your chest and playing against the best 18-and-under kids off Planet Earth was a special experience,” he said of his memories of the tournament.
And that’s what propelled him to fulfill his dreams of Paris 2024 and the Olympics, even if there’s work to be done given his status as a newcomer to the sport.
“To be like, ‘OK, we’re at the Olympics, Canada is in front of my chest and I’m ripping this bike around the velodrome,’ I think that would be something really cool,” he told CBC.
From American football to cycling
Willson played in the NFL for eight years, making it Superbowl twice and won a championship ring in the 2013–14 rookie season with Seattle Seahawks.
After retiring, he started cycling with his parents who frequently cycled in their Ontario community.
“I saw all kinds of nature, dodged things in the way, biked feeling the air, getting a little lighter, not lifting weights,” he recalls of the switch from the football field to the bike.
However, its bulky 109kg (240lb) isn’t particularly up for prototype track or road cyclists.
Willson began road riding, but opted to switch indoors to the velodrome although he admits he still has a long way to go.
The Canadian racer is still focused on honing beginner skills as a racer, such as finding the right aerodynamic body position, something that is not easy with his size.
However, he has expert help in the form of an Olympic champion Kelsey Mitchell.
Mitchell, who won the women’s sprint event at Tokyo 2020also belatedly switched to cycling from its original sport, football (soccer).
“He has to learn all the cycling skills I was trying to learn and then become the best in the world […] it’s kind of fun for me to pick his brains out,” Willson said.
That said, Mitchell made the switch when he was 24, and did so in 2017 with three years to prepare for the Olympics (eventually getting an extra year because of the pandemic).
Willson has had significantly less time and, even by his own account, not fast enough to make the Canadian team into Paris 2024 at the moment.
NFL Olympics: Past history
If Willson makes it to the Olympics, either in 2024 or beyond, he will become the 44th person to play in the NFL and become an Olympian.
Of the 43 who came before him, only three won a Super Bowl ring during their career – and two of them also earned Olympic medals.
1964 Tokyo men’s 100m (and 4x100m) champion Bob Hayes played American football with the Dallas Cowboys and won Super Bowl VI.
Three-time Super Bowl champion Michael Carterwho played for the San Francisco 49ers, won a silver medal in shot put at Los Angeles 1984.
Recently, his fellow Super Bowl ring winners tripled Nate Ebner played for Team USA’s rugby sevens team at Rio 2016 when the sport returned to the Olympic program.
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