It is never easy to lose a friend, even when you know it is coming.
Bob Billingham’s passing was not a surprise to those who knew him. He had been fighting cancer for nearly a decade. But even though we had years to prepare for this, it’s devastating to lose a man, colleague and friend who cast as long a shadow as Bob did. Bob was a giant in our sport, and a giant among his friends. He was the big brother I never had. I miss him terribly.
Bob Billingham was many things in the eyes of many people: an Olympic Medalist and a champion sailor; a world-class operations manager; a major player on multiple levels over many America’s Cup campaigns; and a tireless volunteer on countless boards and committees. But those are just the résumé items. It was the human interactions, the little things that gave Bob texture and made him who and what he was.
The first time I met Bob was in a hotel lobby in Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2004. It was at a US Sailing meeting, and I had just been named Chairman of the Olympic Sailing Committee. Many had advised me to add him to my newly formed OSC. So we sat down, and I was expecting a nice meeting of the minds. Wrong. Bob got in my face immediately. “Who are you and how the hell did you get this job?” “Why should people be excited about your leadership?” “Why should I spend my time helping some young guy I’ve never heard of?” His face was red, he was leaning forward in his chair, and he was literally barking at me. He drilled me.
I was caught completely off guard, and totally flustered. I almost got up and walked away. But I stayed, and then the meeting took an unexpected turn. Bob smiled at me, and said something I’ll never forget: “I was just testing you, Dean. If you are going to succeed with this, you’ll have to handle crap like that from all kinds of people every day. Be ready for it, and I’ll be standing right next to you every step of the way. I’m going to be the best friend you ever had.” How right he was.
Fast forward to the spring of 2007, and Bob and a group of his colleagues wanted to make a big contribution to Olympic Sailing. So Bob and I made our first trip to Weymouth, England, 5+ years before the 2012 Games to begin scouting out locations for a team base. We spent days skulking around Weymouth, trying to keep a low-profile. Bob was in full “America’s Cup disinformation” mode. He didn’t want anyone to figure out who we were and what we were doing (as if it mattered… but it was fun watching him operate!) Fast forward to the 2012 Games, and Bob’s vision was reality. “Camp Billingham” was the home for our teams for multiple years of training and racing. That project was Bob at his creative best.
I spoke to Bob on the phone in February 2014. I had been expecting to see Bob in Miami in January, but he cancelled at the last minute because of his declining health. So I called him. He was in really good spirits that day, and we spoke for about 15 minutes. We told a few stories, and laughed a bit. I made a point of telling Bob how much of an impact he had always had on everyone around him, and how much he meant to people, including me. He thanked me, and when I said I would call again soon, he said “that would be great, but it’s OK if you don’t. I’ll remember this conversation.” That was the last time we spoke.
Bob made a permanent impact on everything and everyone he touched. Bob could yell at you, cheer for you, cry with you, and laugh with you as well as anyone. I have never met anyone else quite like Bob Billingham.
Rest in peace, Bob. You were loved, and you are missed.
Chairman, US Olympic Sailing Committee 2004-2012
April 4, 2014
US Sailing statement on the passing of Bob Billingham, by Josh Adams: http://bit.ly/1qeWrSJ