WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES FOR ELLIOT WILLIS26 Jan 2015
Twelve months ago, at the 2014 ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami, Sevenoaks sailor Elliot Willis from Great Britain was pondering his future.
A split from his sailing partner – double Olympic silver medallist Nick Rogers – had left Willis on the bench and without a helm with whom to further his Olympic Games ambitions.
The 31-year-old, who’d twice won the World Championship in the two-person 470 class with Nic Asher, had twice missed out on selection to the one British spot in the class at the Olympic Games – the first time to Rogers and his then crew Joe Glanfield, and then to Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell who won silver at London 2012.
With no suitable talents waiting in the wings at that time for Willis to team up with and mount a viable challenge for Rio 2016 selection, the 2006 and 2008 World Champion instead diverted his efforts towards coaching, helping the British Sailing Team’s 470 women’s crews while he figured out his next move.
“It was an interesting time,” Willis recounted. “I’d just come off the back of a 470 sailing career and was a bit unsure as to what to do.
“At that time, the British 470 women’s coach spot was available so I got asked to come out and try my hand at coaching.”
“It was a different perspective on the sport. It was quite interesting for me and I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have said I’d have necessarily gone on to pursue a career in it, but it was an opportunity to learn something new and then have a rethink about what I actually wanted to do.”
Under his guidance at the 2014 edition of the ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami, Willis’s charges Sophie Weguelin and Eilidh McIntyre claimed their first ever ISAF World Cup gold – an achievement he modestly refuses to take any credit for – but three weeks later a call came which would reignite his own Olympic dream.
Luke Patience’s crew Joe Glanfield, who’d come out of retirement to team up with the Scotsman for the Rio 2016 cycle, had found that as a father of five, the demands of a gold medal-winning campaign and his family responsibilities had become too much to juggle and he bowed out of the partnership.
“Luke gave me a call in February last year and came out to meet in Palma where I was coaching the girls at a training camp,” Willis recalled.
“At that point he’d split from his previous crew and so was looking to take a different path. We sat down at that point and looked at the ‘for and against’ and what we wanted to get out of each other’s careers.
“It was a great opportunity, I’ve known Luke a very long time. I didn’t have to think too hard about it,” he admitted. With a long history of being sailing rivals from their teenage years and onwards, the duo knew each other well.
“It’s a funny sport in that you kind of grow up with the people that you’re racing against so I’ve known Luke since I was 14 or 15 years old.
“Personality-wise and gelling off the water is the easy bit, it’s getting used to each others’ sailing styles is the bit that can take a little bit of time, but for a new partnership we gelled amazingly quickly.”
Willis and Patience’s highlights in their first season together were a European Championship gold and a silver medal at the Olympic Test Event in Rio.
But with high hopes for World Championship silverware in Santander last September, they were disappointed to have finished just off the podium in fourth – but it’s a disappointment which fuels the fire for the coming 2015 season, which will be an important one in determining their Olympic fortunes and a possible berth at the 2016 Games.
“We didn’t sail the best we could have done at the Worlds and made a few mistakes,” explained Willis, who’s back in competition with Patience at this week’s ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami (26-31 January).
“It’s given us a great stepping stone of things to look forward to over the past autumn. We’ve been training hard and this event will be the first test that we’ve had back in the boat against a world class fleet [since Santander]. We’re looking forward to it.”
Having fallen on the wrong side of some tough British Olympic selection battles over the past two cycles, Willis is hoping that, along with Patience, this is his time to shine with the pair aiming to be the first British team to earn an Olympic gold in the 470 class at Rio.
“I’ve missed the opportunity [to go to the Games] so far, but I’d imagine that when you get the phone call and go and have your tracksuit fitted… it’s what every athlete wants to do at Olympic level. It would be a proud moment, no doubt.”
It’s a big year personally as well as professionally for Willis, who ties the knot in Amsterdam with his Dutch fiancée towards the end of the year.
But for now, he and Patience are focussed on the job in hand at this week’s Miami World Cup regatta and getting their 2015 season off to a medal-winning start.
“We’re going fast, which is a big bonus,” he says of their pre-event training so far.
“The fleet on this run up to Rio has definitely started to up its game. In general in the 470 fleet the points have come down in regattas – they’re all lower scoring. If it’s a light wind regatta here this week then I’d expect the points to all be extremely close.
“There’s a bit of breeze forecast for the first couple of days – I’ll you know mid-week how it’s going I guess!” Willis joked.
“But we’re confident. We’ve set our sights on medals this year, racing from the front of the fleet.
“We’re quick enough and smart enough. We’ve just got to go out and do it.”