“You feel bombproof in what we do. You fly around the world, compete and part of that is the bravado, the arrogance – you don’t expect it to happen to you.”
Elliot Willis always knew 2016 would bring one of the biggest challenges of his life, but he did not anticipate that battle becoming a true “fight for survival”.
Just two months after being named in the Great Britain squad for Rio 2016 the then 32-year-old sailor was hit with a devastating diagnosis of bowel cancer and the realisation that his Olympic dream was over.
“Being deselected was hard, but I look back now and think I didn’t have an option to sail – I wasn’t in any fit state,” Willis, who had been due to partner Luke Patience in the men’s 470 class, told BBC Sport.
“It was quite a late diagnosis and I then went on a rapidly escalating rollercoaster where I deteriorated so quickly and was in a lot of pain.
“What became important was effectively survival.
“After the diagnosis I walked back into the room with my mum and my wife crying, but I didn’t really get the magnitude of the situation.”
‘Relentless pain’ during treatment
Willis had “an inkling something wasn’t right” while on honeymoon with his wife Manon in early November 2015 and assumed the symptoms indicated he had a form of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
An invasive investigation later that month confirmed the problems he was experiencing were caused by something of even greater severity.
At that stage he had little idea of what lay ahead, a state of mind he attributes to potentially being “juiced up on something” from his medical procedure, but reality soon hit.
“I started my treatment with chemotherapy and had several rounds, but didn’t respond particularly well,” he said. “That caused the fatigue and didn’t reduce the pain or the size of the tumour.”
What followed was “condensed radiotherapy” focusing on the lower section of his bowel, which required three weeks of recovery to “allow the burning to come out”.
Willis was in agony. “Dealing with ongoing pain, all the time, on a daily basis was exhausting,” he said. “It wasn’t just feeling really tired, it’s a compete inability to do anything.
“My day would consist of getting up at about 10.30am, maybe manage a walk around, then go back to bed and watch TV.”
Did he think of watching the Rio Olympics while he was recovering?
“I can’t quite explain, but I had zero interest,” he said. “I could barely be bothered to click the button on my TV some days; I didn’t want my phone anywhere near me, I just had zero interest in sport.”
‘I thought cancer might change me’
Almost a year after his treatment began, Willis finally started feeling some improvement after being given a new type of drug – pembrolizumab – which boosts the immune system of patients who have had cancer treatment.
“I thought [cancer] might have changed me in the long term,” he said. “When I was very ill I didn’t want any form of competition. I became quiet, I avoided conflict and if people got angry I didn’t want to be involved with it.
“But the drug worked fairly quickly, the pain dropped off and as I’ve got better I’ve become more competitive again.”
Willis’ fitness improved rapidly, he purchased his own boat and began sailing larger J70 yachts, but at no point did he consider a bid to race at Tokyo 2020.
“The Olympic side of it holds no interest for me sailing-wise,” he said.
“I don’t look at the boat and think ‘wow I wish I was sailing or racing that’. I look at the bigger picture of it and think I’m lucky to be involved.”
That involvement, at the elite level, now takes the form of helping others.
“I get my enjoyment from coaching now,” he said.
Although Willis never had the chance to add his own name to Britain’s illustrious list of Olympic champions, he hopes to coach Britain’s leading women’s 470 pair – Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre – to gold at Tokyo 2020.
The pair are effusive in their praise of their coach’s sailing skills.
“He was always one of those you looked up to and thought ‘wow he’s really good’ and obviously with what happened with Rio it’s really special to have him with us,” reigning Olympic champion Mills told BBC Sport.
McIntyre added: “Elliot was one of those you watched sailing with awe – he was just amazing around the boat with beautiful technique and loves the technical aspects which is a breath of fresh air for us.”
“He’s very different to us in in the way he looks at sailing,” Mills said. “He brings so much, so I’m really excited to see where we can get to as a three.”
The pair won World Championship silver as well as the World Cup Series title in their first year as a pair and Willis is excited by their potential.
“They are performing well at the moment, but they’re still developing as a team, and I think if they keep going as they have then they have the ability to dominate not just win the gold,” he said.
The future? ‘I’m in limbo’
“Cancer doesn’t dictate my life but I plan around it for sure still and I don’t look long-term with a view to life without it.”
Willis still has regular check-ups, explaining he is “not out of the woods yet” in terms of being cancer-free.
However, his experiences over the past few years have shaped how he views life and his future.
“I’m in limbo, not knowing if it will or won’t come back, which is just one of the things with dealing with cancer, but it’s important to know you’re not alone with it – loads of people go through this,” he said.
“It’s made me a more patient person who’s not constantly striving to move forwards.
“I now take time to look around, go for days out, appreciate and enjoy life more than I did before.”