Willie Banks stood, twitching, at the head of the triple jump runway at The Athletic Congress national Track and Field Championships, but he was facing the wrong way. His friend and Los Angeles Track Club teammate, Louise Romo, was coming off the final turn of the women's 800 meters, battling Claudette Groenendaal for the lead. Banks pivoted on his heels as the women passed him, exulting in their struggle, and no one can exult with the effect of Willie Banks.
"I felt the excitement of Louise's race," Banks would say. "So I started my run." Now 29, Banks for years has been the great exhibitionist of the jumps, urging crowds to chant and applaud his approaches. "That's me, a performer, but the crowd is my third leg. It catapults me out there." Yet now the crowd was intent on Romo and Groenendaal, who were dead even with 50 yards to go. This jump Banks would do alone.
He leaned into his sprint down the level, hard runway in Indiana University Track and Field Stadium Sunday night. The sunset was soft gold. Banks's run-in was swifter, less kangaroolike, than in recent years. He has placed himself under the guidance of the LATC's Chuck Debus, who says in blunt analysis, "He didn't know how to sprint. His knees were too low, and he was bouncing too high and braking himself." In the winter Banks did endless drills and pulley-weight work. A month ago he ran a 400 in 48.5, his best ever. On June 8 he broke his 4-year-old American record in the triple jump with 57'11¾". However, that was still well short of the 58'8½" world record of Brazil's Joao Oliveira, set in 1975 in the cordially thin air of Mexico City's 7,500-foot elevation.
For years Banks has been urged to pay a visit to the Mexico Olympic Stadium. For just as many years Banks has replied, "I'm going to do this thing at sea level or not at all."
After last season, surely, that meant never. Beset by injuries, Banks placed sixth in the L.A. Olympics, behind gold and silver medalists Al Joyner and Mike Conley. Afterward, his club, Nike-sponsored Athletics West, cut him. Banks wasn't the only one offended. "Do you cut Larry Bird because he doesn't have a good season?" asked 400-meter hurdler Andre Phillips, who also had lost Nike support. "I guess it's a business."
It is nothing of the kind to athletes. They take such judgments personally. They burn to repudiate them. Phillips won the 400 hurdles in the TAC meet in a blazing 47.67. And Banks was on his way to a spectacular rebuke of his own.
"When I took the first step of my run," Banks said, "I knew it'd be a world record." That's easy to say, but Banks, who has a law degree, could produce proof. After an opening, "too-nervous" jump of 57 feet, he'd said to high jumper Lee Balkin, "This next one is the record."
Banks hit the takeoff board perfectly. "In the air, I knew I was in a good position," he said. As a triple jumper must, he brought forward the leg he'd jumped with, his left, to propel him into the step (from the more descriptive hop, step and jump) phase. "My left leg had to hold and not buckle," he said. "It was fine. After that, there was no problem, because I have the longest jump phase of anyone."
He was sure it was a record when he sliced into the sand. "Virgin territory," he said. "You know it when you enter it." Yet his first thought wasn't for himself. He bounded out of the pit howling encouragement for Romo in the final yards of the 800. Groenendaal edged her, 1:59.48 to 1:59.63. "I was just at the finish line when he landed," Romo would say. "I couldn't see him, but I heard the announcer say something about 59 feet, and suddenly I wasn't tired anymore."
Banks's distance was 58'11½", three inches better than the record. The wind was a legal 1.47 meters per second. And yes, Banks celebrated. He leaped and wept and took a victory lap, which he understood was a trifle premature when Conley came up with his own personal best of 58'1¼". Minutes earlier, that would have been the American record.
In the hour following, Banks occasionally shivered as the achievement worked its way under his cheerful surface. "This," he said, "this is the greatest moment of my life." He spoke fondly of teammates who had goaded or shamed him into more rigorous training. He said now, finally, he might jump at altitude. And he told this story:
"After the Olympics I cried for an hour, in my room. And I asked myself why. Was it because I'd lost? No, it was because I no longer had a goal in life. I was lost. I was alive and healthy. I had a brain. I would become an attorney. But I needed other goals, and not a far-off 1988 Olympics. So I decided. It would be the world record. My tears dried up. I got a little grin. And it's come to this.
"And now that I've made it..." Banks paused, savoring it, this last little jump. "...I gotta go home and cry until I find another goal."