May 1986: Willie Banks does the triple jump during a track meet.
Willie Banks had nowhere to go but up when he was looking for a less strenuous masters event to go along with his tried-and-true triple jump.
Now at age 56, the three-time Olympian and former world record holder in the “hop, skip and jump” is the oldest American to clear 6 feet in the high jump.
Banks, who made the Olympic team in 1980, ’84 and ’88 and is president of the U.S. Olympians Association, set the American record for his age group at the San Diego Senior Games on Sept. 22. He also won the triple jump in the meet at Mesa College.
“It’s easier on my body,” Banks said of the high jump, which he has been doing off and on for about six years. “The triple jump is an event that will just kill you. It’s like a marathon for me. I can do it once a year and then I have to go recuperate.”
For the high jump, Banks uses an abbreviated three-step approach and the Western Roll (straddle) technique, in which he flings himself over the bar face first.
“The high jump is three steps, I’m over and boom! I’m done,” he said. “I’ve always called the high jumpers the lazy athletes of track and field.”
His old friends who are high jumpers are used to his teasing, Banks said, but his record got under their skin. Banks said Leo Williams, silver medalist in the 1983 Pan American Games, “called me and told me I should stay away from his high jump. It’s great to talk to some of the old guys.”
Banks, who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., was named Athlete of the Week by USA Track and Field for his effort. He broke the American 55-59 age group record of 5-10¾, set in August by Jim Barrineau, an Olympian who actually competed in the high jump. Barrineau bested a mark of 5-10 by Herm Wyatt that had stood since 1987.
Wearing USA on his chest, Banks triple jumped 40-8¼ in San Diego before moving on to the high jump. He cleared 6-0 on his first attempt. After asking for the bar to be raised to 6-2, he barely missed. The listed world record for age 55-59 is 6-0 ½ by Thomas Zacharias of Germany.
“Afterwards someone said, ‘Why didn’t you just go up 2 more centimeters? You would have had the world record,” Banks said. “I didn’t know what the world record was. I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”
He did pay attention when “all” he was was an elite triple jumper. Banks set the world record of 58-11½ in 1985, which stood for 10 years. He was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1999, and has been on the USATF board of directors since 2008.
Despite his standing in his event, an Olympic medal eluded Banks. He placed sixth in both 1984 and 1988, when he competed while injured, but said his biggest regret is 1980, when the U.S. boycotted.
“I think that was my prime,” Banks said, “I was ranked No. 2 in the world even though I didn’t go, and I had beaten the guy who won the gold medal. I was jumping like crazy; I didn’t think anybody could beat me.
“But I still appreciate the idea of Olympism and what keeps it sweet for me is the fact that I stay involved with the Olympic Games.”
At the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, Banks was the Director of Athlete Services. “They called me the Director of Fun,” he said, noting that he introduced laser tag in the Olympic Village.
Banks started masters competition when he was 45. As he got older, he knew he still had spring in his step, but was carrying some extra pounds.
“When I was competing, I was at about 176-180 pounds,” he said, “but I got up to 220 pounds and I was like ‘What the heck?’ It’s a whole other person I’m carrying.”
Because he doesn’t have a lot of time to work out, Banks took up Zumba.
“I knew that if I lost weight, I could push my body up, because Zumba had gotten me into good shape,” he said. “I just I knew I’d be ready when the time was there.”
Video of his record high jump performance made YouTube, and spread throughout the track and field community.
“He was pretty good,” said Dean Hayes, a 1988 Olympic assistant coach and jumps expert.
Hayes said the triple jump and high jump match up well, sharing similarities in the leg kick and the way athletes swing their arms for lift.
“I think he really needs five to seven steps and then he could go higher,” Hayes said.
Banks agrees, but said he has avoided the longer approach for two reasons. “One is I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle the speed,” he said. “The second thing is I don’t use high jump shoes, so with that speed, I would probably slip.”
He said he might eventually invest in the shoes. He won’t change his style, though, to the Fosbury flop popularized by 1968 Olympic champion Dick Fosbury.
“When I was growing up, we did the straddle, and I had a coach that wouldn’t let us do anything else,” Banks said. “In fact I got kicked off the high school team, because I wanted to do a different type of high jump.”
His mother convinced the coach to take Banks back on the team, and he eventually moved on to the long jump, triple jump and hurdles, leaving the high jump behind.
Banks has also been wary of using an innovation he brought to track and field: rhythmic clapping that is taken up by the crowd in the stadium and fires up the athletes.
“I’ve kind of been afraid because it would put me in that competitive mode,” he said. “It would psyche me up, and if I get all psyched up, I really have to perform. And really what I want to do is just go out and enjoy myself and have a good time.”
At the masters world championships last year in Sacramento, Calif., Banks hurt himself while triple jumping. “I could hardly walk and then they started clapping for me,” he said. “And I ran down with as much speed as I could gather up and I got a silver medal. So it’s still very valid for me, but it scares me to use it, because then I really get revved up.”
Banks hopes to compete next year in the world championships in Brazil, where he may even add the long jump to his repertoire.
“I’ve had my big hurrah as an athlete,” he said. “I think the important thing now for me is to stay healthy, to get out there with the guys and have a bunch of fun, joking and clowning around. For me, that’s the reason I do it. It’s not for the records.”
Banks is on the lookout for all-comers meets in both the United States and Japan, where he’s traveling this month. His business, called HSJ Incorporated (for Hop, Skip, Jump), sells sports floors and field turf in Japan – Banks speaks fluent Japanese – and in Taiwan.
“I’m in pretty good shape right now,” he said. “You never know: The next time I see cake, I might eat it, and then I always have a problem. I get fatter and fatter and I can’t jump anymore.”
In that case, Banks will just have to hop, skip dessert and jump.
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.