It's not often we get to go national, let alone international, here in our little hamlets by the Thames. But wouldn't it be a hoot if Bob Willis' sail bore the words of one of his favorite local haunts, say, "Muddy Waters Cafe, New London, CT" during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games?
Could happen. First, though, Willis, who graduated from Connecticut College earlier this month, has to qualify for the London games as a windsurfer.
OK. Lots of background needed here. A two-minutedrill version: Willis is training for his second Olympic campaign as an RS:X sailor. RS:X is a program of Olympic windsurfing, which became an Olympic sport in 1984.
Willis, who grew up in the shadows of Chicago and sailed at Conn, turned experiences as a young sailor on Lake Michigan into a potential Olympic berth as a windsurfer. He won two national junior championships and was third at the world championships before darn near qualifying for the Beijing games. He finished third at the 2008 Olympic trials in Long Beach.
Translation: He has a very real chance of parlaying his experiences on our Thames for the more notable Thames in London. His third-place finish came after a mere 10 months of training.
"Towards the end, I became more encouraged," Willis said.
Willis, 6-foot-4, 175 pounds and shaped like 6 o'clock, has been training for a while now with Lauren Medberry at Advantage Personal Training in Niantic, preparing for the RS:X North American championships in Miami in mid-January and the more competitive European regattas in March. He's training as many as seven hours per day, including a stint with Medberry that includes sprinting uphill on a treadmill with a vicious incline.
Willis trades his affable demeanor for a workout comportment more serious than a trial judge. His face rarely changes expression, in spite of a series of exercises that look more difficult than walking barefoot up Mt. McKinley.
Windsurfing, we've come to learn, is a lot more than letting the wind whip through your hair on a summer day on the water and then going back to the beach for a sip of the euphoric nectar.
"Generally," Willis said, "you have what's known as 'light air' and 'heavy air.' In light air, it's 3-7 mph and you are constantly pumping to create artificial wind. In heavy air (with accommodating winds), there's no pumping needed."
Willis, the youngest of three children, discovered Connecticut College thanks to his sister, who sailed for Boston University.
"She knew of Conn's (sailing) program," Willis said. "Plus, it has strong academics."
Willis chose Conn over William & Mary and the College of Charleston. He graduated from Conn earlier this month with a degree in economics.
And who knew a Chicago kid would like Conn — and southeastern Connecticut — so much?
"A really great place to go to school," he said. "I liked it in New London. The food was surprisingly good. My girlfriend would come up from New Jersey and say, 'The only reason I'm coming up there is for the food.'"
Willis said their unofficial starting five would be Muddy Waters, Paul's Pasta, Chester's Barbecue, Jasmine Thai and the Broken Yolk.
Willis will be back in Connecticut a few times before leaving for Europe in March. He'll be back at Advantage for a fundraiser in February. He can use all the sponsorship money he can get.
"Flights, food and coaching," he said. "The level of coaching I get is related to how much money I raise."
Willis has established a Web site (bobsails.com) offering more details about sponsorship, including plenty of room on his sail. Imagine the cameras focusing on Willis during the 2012 games and the world seeing a giant "Paul's Pasta" sign.
"It's a very, very exciting time," Willis said earlier this week as he prepared for another workout.
And who knows? Maybe Willis goes from New London to London, trades our Thames for theirs and turns his mettle into a medal.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.
Updated on May 18, 2013, 4:45pm