San Diego to Tokyo

Purpose After Tragedy: Team Willoughby Eyes Olympic Gold

Chula Vista's Sam and Alise Willoughby are more than just husband and wife -- they're also now coach and Olympian

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Tragedy, triumph, and newfound purpose; for Alise and Sam Willoughby, the journey between the 2016 and 2021 Olympics has been filled with more twists and turns than just about any other athlete storyline heading into Tokyo.

It may just be the most memorable too.

Alise and Sam could be considered the “1st couple” of BMX racing given their individual talents and championship records, but it will be their teamwork heading into the Olympics that will stand out as Alise goes for the gold.

"We've done this whole BMX thing. It's how we met and I think we've done it alongside each other forever," said Alise.

The couple is more than just husband and wife. Sam is also Alise's coach.

“I don’t think I could want the best for her any more,” said Sam.

The couple has four Olympics and a pair of silver medals between them.

Sam won his at the 2012 Olympics in London and Alise won hers at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. But, just weeks after the Rio games, their BMX paths would take drastic turns in different directions.

During a routine training ride at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Sam fell off his bike and suffered a life-altering injury.

"And even that mistake I made, I'd made hundreds of times as a kid, flip off the back of my bike, knocks the wind out of you and you get up and go again, this one just hit the wrong way," Sam said.

By all accounts, it was a freak accident on a track Sam had ridden countless times before, but this time he didn't get up. He woke up in the hospital following a Life Flight and emergency surgery to a devastating diagnosis.

“The words of 'permanent paralysis' and I remember just looking at Alise and saying 'you're not marrying me, you're not marrying a cripple,'" said Willoughby.

They were still engaged at the time.

Alise Post had yet to become Alise Willoughby and although she was the bubbly 25-year old love of his life, Sam believed his paralysis would hold her back from everything she had yet to accomplish.

Luckily, his short-sighted words didn't stand a chance.

Even in the face of what would become the longest stretch of their lives defined by grueling rehab and fragile emotions, Alise never left his side.

BMX racer Alise Willoughby recounts the physical toll the sport has taken on her body and all the broken bones and scars she’s accumulated on her way to Tokyo.

BMX took a momentary backseat, but it didn't stay there for long.

"It really took him giving me that green light of ‘it's OK, I back you and this still means something 100%. Like, sport is still important, you should be going after your goals, you're good at this,'" said Alise.

Her return to the track would pave the way for his return as well, but this time as her coach.

When he came on board and said, 'I'd like to help coach you,' that was the biggest win for me.

Alise Willoughby

"When he came on board and said, ‘I'd like to help coach you,’ that was the biggest win for me," said Alise.

Which is saying something, because within four months of their new professional bond, she'd win her first of two world championships.

But all of those professional moments paled in comparison to the personal milestone which both Alise and Sam describe as the best day of their lives.

Their New Year's Eve wedding, surrounded by family and friends, signified their years of love through sickness and health, but it was also the day Sam had been training for since his injury.

Sam, channeling every ounce of inner strength and determination, walked down the aisle.

"And I think that shows the power of will and power of emotion and just pouring your heart and soul into something and really believing in it,” said Alise, “That was pretty special."

Clearly, it has been a long road for this couple between the Olympics. The pandemic postponement only added to their hunger for the one prize they've yet to secure: Olympic Gold.

I have many sleepless nights thinking and planning, but I love that. That's what gets my juices going.

Sam Willoughby

"I have many sleepless nights thinking and planning, but I love that. That’s what gets my juices going," said Sam.

For so many, BMX racing is an individual sport, but for Team Willoughby, it’s bigger than one person.

"Every time I get on the track, I feel this energy that it's bigger than just me out there," said Alise.

Look for this unbreakable bond to be a reckoning force on the track in Tokyo.

Listen/Subscribe to NBC 7’s Olympic Dreams: San Diego to Tokyo podcast wherever you enjoy listening to podcasts. On each episode, NBC 7 News Today anchor Steven Luke will sit down with athletes in their prime, each with their sights set on one thing: representing Team USA in Tokyo this summer. How will they achieve their Olympic dreams?

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