Thom Tillis, a Republican known for his fiscally conservative agenda, might never have become the Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives had it not been for his unabashed love for extreme sports.
Back in 2002, Tillis was a Cornelius resident working for a high-pressure consulting firm and looking for a way to enjoy his weekends.When he learned about an undeveloped swath of 20 acres near his home off Jetton Road, he approached town officials about developing a beginner mountain-biking path.
“I’ve always had the kinds of careers that have a tendency to go home with you,” he says. “These sports require you to concentrate on something else. You’re going down an intermediate trail and you could end up tangled with a tree. It tends to make you focus on that activity and push all other things out – which makes it really fun.”
To help increase the chances that his pet project would be approved, Tillis joined the Cornelius Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
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He successfully ran for a position on the Cornelius Board of Commissioners in 2003 before state residents elected him to the N.C. House in 2006. Life’s become exponentially busier for Tillis since he was elected to the House – yet not busy enough where it keeps him away from mountain-biking for more than a few days.
“I brought my bike up here and I’ll get out after hours,” he says. “There’s a mall near the legislative building and there’s some small stairs that I’ll bike down to get the heart rate up.”
When he returns to Cornelius on the weekends, Tillis wastes little time before heading for the open waters where he can revel in another favorite hobby: wake-boarding.
A Bank of America executive introduced Tillis to the sport in the early 2000s when Tillis was still a partner at a local consulting firm, he says.
“The first experience wasn’t good. I had trouble pulling myself out of the water. I remember every muscle in my body hurting except for my forehead,” he says. “I went out the second day, and I really started to enjoy it. It’s scary and it gets your adrenaline pumping. When you’re approaching the wake, you pause for a minute and then there’s this buildup of speed. That when it’s really exhilarating.”
Last summer, Tillis established a ritual with his son Ryan, 20, and his son’s friend Chris King, in which they went wakeboarding at 6 a.m. every Monday before Tillis had to drive to Raleigh for the week.
“It’s something he could do with the kids and share with them. I love it for them because it’s a connection for a father and son,” says Tillis’ wife, Susan. “He likes being outside and he definitely has that high risk tolerance.”
Adds son Ryan, a junior at George Washington University: “He really gets into it.”
Tillis says he’s always had an affinity for extreme sport, although he didn’t really explore those interests until his 20s.
“I’ve never seen anything that I didn’t want to jump off of,” he says. “I’ve had some fairly high-pressure jobs in my career and this is a great way to release some of that stress.”
As he’s gotten older, the 50-year-old representative has become more involved with the sports.
He’s experienced his fair share of close calls, he says, including a broken collar bone and two split helmets.
But that just comes with the territory, he says.
“Tom is not afraid to master the skills, to jump the wake or try new tricks,” says Susan. “The more of a challenge, the better.”
And while his interest in extreme sports means he’s often surrounded by people half his age, Tillis appears to be sending out the right message.
“He’s a down-to-earth, fun-loving kind of guy,” says Tillis’ son’s friend King, a junior at N.C. State. “I think it’s really cool. I can definitely see myself being someone like that later in life.”