Ex-NFLer Luke Willson pursues Olympic dream with move from gridiron to velodrome
33-year-old serving as coach on new CBC show hopes to reach Paris as track cyclist
Compelled by a baseball experience, former NFLer Luke Willson hopes to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics in track cycling.
Willson, now 33, played first base and hit cleanup — behind No. 3 batter Brett Lawrie, the former Blue Jay — at the 2008 U-18 baseball world championship in Edmonton, helping Canada to a sixth-place finish.
"To be in Edmonton, wearing Canada across your chest and playing against the best 18-and-under kids from planet Earth was a special experience," Willson told CBC Sports. "To be able to be like, OK, we're at the Olympics, I've got Canada across my chest and I'm ripping this bike around the velodrome, I think that'd be something really cool."
Willson, who played seven NFL seasons mostly with the Seattle Seahawks as a tight end, retired in August 2021 due to health issues.
He returned to his parents at home in LaSalle, Ont., where he discovered that they enjoy biking around the community for fun, and thought he'd give it a try.
"It was exhilarating in a weird way," he said. "I'm going for these three-hour rides. I'm seeing all sorts of nature, avoiding things on the road, biking around feeling air, getting a little lighter, not lifting weights. It was kind of a great combo."
Soon enough, Willson's hobby "snowballed" into passion.
"I was like, holy smokes, I'm really loving this. Like, I'm gonna give it a shot."
WATCH | Willson discusses newfound passion for cycling:
Coach on Canada's Ultimate Challenge
Willson now trains with fellow Canadian Travis Smith in Los Angeles, where he says the focus is more on technique than anything else. If he gets fast enough, he hopes to move to the velodrome in Milton, Ont., where the Canadian team is based.
Last summer, Willson served as a coach on CBC's Canada's Ultimate Challenge, the competition series that premiered last Thursday. New episodes air each Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on CBC and CBC Gem.
One night, after a long day of filming in Yukon, Willson returned to his hotel room around 10 p.m. with the sun still shining. Ever aware of the opportunity in front of him, he grabbed his bike and went out for a ride.
At first, long rides were commonplace for Willson, who began his biking journey mostly on the road. He'd track his rides in an app and even raced in a few lower-level events.
But at 240 pounds, the former football player couldn't keep pace with lighter competitors across long stretches.
"It's like, hey, we're going to keep all the power, but you need to lose X amount of pounds and you also need to be hunched over in a non-powerful position," he said.
Besides his body, Willson said it's also a difficult mindset adjustment moving from football to cycling.
"Football, it's way easier in the sense of focus because it's six seconds, five-second play, whatever it is. Boom, we're in the play. Walk back to the huddle, focus in the huddle. What's the play was formation? What's the snap count? What's my job?" he said.
"But in cycling, I mean, you're out there for a while."
For those reasons, Willson decided around last fall to switch his focus from road to track. It's still early days for the Canadian, who's mostly working on honing basic cycling skills like pedal stroke, body position and aerodynamics.
He says he's found similarities to football in strategy, where it's not just the biggest and fastest people who succeed. Instead, you need to decide when to attack and when to draft and conserve energy.
"You have guys that might try and rip it early and then hang on for dear life, which is kind of my vibe at the moment, which doesn't work well. So yeah, it's very, very strategic," he said.
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Help from an Olympic champion
Willson also enlisted the help of Canadian Olympic track cycling champion Kelsey Mitchell, who switched from soccer in 2017 before winning her gold medal in 2021.
Willson said it's nice to have someone with whom he feels comfortable asking "novice questions," comparing it to someone who's new to hockey asking a veteran how to shoot the puck. (Willson was also a triple-A hockey player growing up).
"[Mitchell] had to learn all of those bike skills that I'm trying to learn and then be the best in the world, which she is. So it's kind of been fun for me to pick her brain," he said.
Unlike Mitchell, who had four years to prepare for her first Olympics, Willson's runway to the Paris Games will only total about two years. He's also coming in at an older age than Mitchell, who is still just 29, did.
While Willson says it's not necessarily Paris or bust for his Olympic dreams, he's preparing as though that's the case.
And though he reiterates that he's not currently fast enough to get there, Willson takes solace in the simplicity of the task in front of him.
"If you ride your bike at this speed, for this amount of time, you're on. So it's very black and white, like, you do this, you made it. If you don't, you don't."