But as he put it: “In a way, I’ve been working toward this (training for the Olympics) my whole life.”
Willis, who grew up in Colorado and graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2011, was selected late last year to be one of six athletes in the USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Recruitment Program, and is now training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., until at least June.
“I’m aiming for Rio (de Janeiro) in 2016,” Willis said.
Willis got himself noticed by New Mexico triathletes after a sixth place overall finish in the 2012 Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon and an April 2012 win in the TriTaos – which he completed by doing the backstroke for much of the swim leg.
He said those results, combined with the fact that he had never trained to race a bicycle, made him decide that maybe the sport of triathlon just might be his cup of tea. Local triathletes stepped up to help him through the sport’s learning curve, and his results got him noticed by USA Triathlon.
Willis grew up in an active family, hiking with his mother as he grew up around Leadville, Colo. During his middle school years, he turned to swimming as his sport and later he tried cross-country skiing, competing on a national level. In high school, he ran track.
After high school, Willis moved to Albuquerque and enrolled in the School of Architecture at UNM. He was a walk-on athlete for the cross-country and track teams. And, for the most part, he enjoyed running. Especially the steeple chase.
After graduation, he found himself “looking for the next adventure,” and decided to compete in the annual Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon. The event, held in Grants, includes a 13-mile bike, 5-mile run, 2-mile cross-country ski and 1-mile snowshoe (those legs are then done again in reverse order).
“I never had trained on a bicycle,” Willis said in a phone interview earlier this year from Colorado Springs. “I came off the bike in 50th. I thought I was going to explode.”
But he took 6th place overall and 1st in the 19- to 24-year-old males division, completing the course in 4:28:04.
Next up was the TriTaos and his infamous (among New Mexico triathletes, at least) backstroke. He won the “reverse sprint” race (2 mile run, 9.6 mile bike and 400 yard swim) in 38:52.
“They all laughed at me because I was doing the backstroke,” he said. The swimming leg is generally done freestyle. “But I was just trying to keep moving while I caught my breath.”
Four months later, Willis landed at the Olympic Training Center. He had about a month to pack up his Albuquerque life and move to Colorado Springs.
“I know it seems like this came out of nowhere,” he said. “But really, it was just me finding the right combination of sports.”
The Collegiate Recruitment Program was started in 2009 by USA Triathlon as a way to expose collegiate swimmers and runners to the possibility of being professional triathletes. The program includes room and board, coaching and mentoring for six to nine months.
“It’s a weeding-out process that will take the six of us down to three by the summer of 2013,” Willis said.
It will take him from national level races to international races by the end of the summer and then the Elite Nationals in mid-September.
He said his first month at the Olympic Training Center was a big adjustment just getting over the fact that he eats in the same dining hall as American mile record-holder Alan Webb and Shalane Flanagan, a distance runner who won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics.
Training also was a challenge as he adjusted to a new home, lifestyle and training structure.
“The first 10 days were hit or miss, especially in the water,” Willis wrote on his blog in February.
His inaugural races earlier this month in Florida were, as he said, a mixed bag. And while he didn’t place high enough to earn “professional” standing with the International Triathlon Union, he earned his stripes as a cyclist with the road rash he suffered in a crash.
“Opening races are always edgy,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I was a little bummed.
“But at the same time I’m happy with how far my training has come. ”