Ex-NFLer Luke Willson is pursuing the Olympic dream with the move from the gridiron to the velodrome

Former NFL player Luke Willson, featured above in an episode of Canada's Ultimate Challenge, is now hoping to reach the 2024 Olympics as a track cyclist.  (CBC - photo credit)

Former NFL player Luke Willson, featured above in an episode of Canada’s Ultimate Challenge, is now hoping to reach the 2024 Olympics as a track cyclist. (CBC – photo credit)

Fueled by a baseball experience, former NFL player Luke Willson is hoping to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics in track cycling.

Willson, now 33, played at first base behind ex-Blue Jay batsman No. 3 at the 2008 U-18 Baseball World Championship in Edmonton and hit clean to help Canada finish sixth.

“Being in Edmonton, carrying Canada across your chest and playing against the best under-18s on planet Earth was a special experience,” Willson told CBC Sports. “To be able to say, OK, we’re at the Olympics, I’ve got Canada on my chest and I’m ripping this bike around the velodrome, I think that would be something really cool.”

Willson, who played seven NFL seasons mostly with the Seattle Seahawks as a close end, retired in August 2021 due to ill health.

He returned to his parents in LaSalle, Ontario where he discovered that they enjoy biking around the community for fun and thought he would give it a try.

“It was intoxicating in a weird way,” he said. “I do these three-hour drives. I see all kinds of nature, avoid things on the road, drive around, feel air, get a little lighter, don’t lift weights. It was kind of a great combination.”

Soon, Willson’s hobby turned into a passion.

“I thought holy smokers, I really love this. I’ll try it.”

CLOCK | Willson talks about his newfound passion for cycling:

Coach at 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’s hoping for the Milton, Ontario Velodrome, where the Canadian team is based.

Last summer, Willson served as a coach on CBC’s Canada’s Ultimate Challenge, the competitive series that premiered last Thursday. New episodes air every Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on CBC and CBC Gem.

One night, after a long day of shooting in the Yukon, Willson returned to his hotel room at around 10pm in glorious sunshine. Always aware of the opportunity in front of him, he grabbed his bike and set off.

“It’s after midnight and it felt like 4 p.m.,” he recalled.

Initially, long rides were the order of the day for Willson, who began his bike journey mostly on the road. He tracked his rides on an app and even competed in some lower level events.

But at 240 kilos, the former footballer could not keep up with lighter competitors for long stretches.

“It’s like, hey, we’re going to keep all the strength, but you have to lose X pounds and you also have to be bent over in a non-powerful position,” he said.

As well as his physique, Willson said it was also a difficult mindset adjustment to make the switch from football to cycling.

“Football, it’s a lot easier in terms of concentration because it’s a six-second, five-second game, whatever it is. Boom, we’re in the game. Go back to the huddle, focus in the huddle. What the game was Formation “What’s the number of snaps? What’s my job?” he said.

“But with cycling, I mean, you’re out there for a while.”

For these reasons, around last fall, Williamson decided to shift his focus from the street to the track. The Canadian is still in its infancy, mainly working on improving basic cycling skills such as pedaling, posture 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 must decide when to attack and when to draw and conserve energy.

“You’ve got people trying to rip it up early and then hanging for their lives, which is kind of my vibe at the moment that’s not working out well. So yeah, it’s very, very strategic,” he said.

CLOCK | CBC Sports Responds to Episode 1 of Canada’s Ultimate Challenge:

Help from an Olympic champion

Willson also enlisted the help of Canadian track cycling Olympic gold medalist Kelsey Mitchell, who switched from soccer in 2017 before winning her gold medal in 2021.

Willson said it’s nice to have someone he’s comfortable with asking “rookie questions,” comparing it to someone 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 these bike skills i’m trying to learn and then be the best in the world what it is. So I kind of enjoyed picking her brains,” he said.

Unlike Mitchell, who had four years to prepare for her first Olympics, Willson’s runway to the Paris Games will only be about two years. He also comes at an older age than Mitchell, who is still only 29 years old.

While Willson says it’s not necessarily Paris or broke for his Olympic dreams, he’s preparing as if it were.

And while he reiterates that he currently isn’t fast enough to get there, Willson finds solace in the simplicity of the task ahead.

“If you ride your bike at that speed for that long, it’s your turn. So it’s very black and white, you do it, you did it. If you don’t do it, you don’t do it.”


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