As he celebrates his 60th birthday this week, it is time to honour an athlete who has probably done more to promote the event in the eyes of the public than any other. The first man to jump over 18 metres, nearly 30 years ago, and an athlete still competing in Master events, Mr. Triple Jump himself – Willie Banks.
Banks was born on 11th March 1956 and began his athletics career as a Hurdler, High Jumper and Long Jumper before trying the Triple Jump. Aided by a former National Champion who taught at his school, Banks mastered the event by the time he enroled at UCLA in 1974.
In 1976, as a 20 year-old, he just missed selection for the Montreal Olympics as he finished 4th in the American Olympic Trials in Eugene, jumping 16.88m. His jump was still good enough to rank him 7th in the World that year which was the first of 13 consecutiive years he appeared in the World List Top 10.
He improved to 16.94m in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1977, before first breaking the 17-metre barrier the following year with 17.05m. In 1979 he took silver in the Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with 16.88m behind the World Record Holder, João Carlos de Oliveira (17.27m). Banks was to end the year 2nd in the World Rankings jumping a wind-assisted 17.43m and legal 17.23m.
In 1980 Banks took 1st spot in the American Olympic Trials by 54 cm in rain-hit Eugene with 16.80m, but the American boycott of the Moscow Games delayed his Olympic debut. While the Soviet Union’s Jaak Uudmae took Olympic gold with 17.35m, Banks recorded the longest jump off the year with a wind-assisted 17.36m mark.
In 1981 he topped the World Lists again as he set his first American Record with 17.56m in Sacremento, California. He dominated the event that year, owning 6 of the top 9 jumps, but during that summer he changed the public profile of the event with the introduction of the rhythmic hand-clapping that precedes many competitive field event trials to this day. In this Spikes article Banks explains how it all came about.
In 1982 Banks ranked 5th in the World with 17.36m behind Britain’s Keith Connor. Their clash in a UK v USA v Sweden match at Crystal Palace was billed as the highlight of the meeting, proving how much he had helped push the event forward into the media spotlight.
In 1983 the inaugural World Championships held in Helsinki, Finland, seemed set-up to for Banks to take a gobal crown. He took an early lead with 17.08m in round 1, which remained unchallenged until fellow American Mike Conley reached out to 17.13m in round 3. Banks responded immediately with 17.18m but the competition was only just warming up for the eventual, surprise, victor. Poland’s Zdzisław Hoffmann also reached 17.18m in round 4, trailling Banks on countback, however Hoffman bounded out to 17.35m in round 5 to take the lead. Banks responded with a jump of around 17.50m in the final round, but a marginal foul meant Hoffman took the World Title, and capped the competition of his life with a last round 17.42m. Banks taking the silver on countback from Nigeria’s Ajayi Agebebaku.
1984 was Olympic year, with the Games taking place on American soil in Los Angeles, but the strength of depth of American Triple Jumping and the US first-past-the-post criteria for qualification meant that even being part of the Olympic Games was no formality for Banks. In a field consisiting of the likes of Ray Kimble, Charlie Simpkins and Paul Jordan – who produced a qualification round jump of 17.19m – Banks placed 3rd with 17.17m behind Al Joyner (17.19m) and emerging Olympic favourite Mike Conley (17.50m) for an American Dream Team. By the time the Olympics arrived, however, Banks was hindered by a knee injury and had to setle for 6th with 16.75m. Joyner’s opening effort of 17.26m was enough to take gold from Conley (17.18m) with Connor taking Bronze for Great Britain (16.87m).
By 1985 Banks was fully fit again and produced the highlight of his career on 16th June at the US Track & Field Championships in Indianapolis as he jumped a massive 17.97m (wind 1.5 m/s) to add 8 cm to de Oliveira’s World Record from 1975. Tantaslingly close to the 18 metre mark, Banks proved this was no fluke jump as he produced a windy 17.84m in 1986 in Eugene but still came 2nd on the day, and in the World Lists, behind Charlie Simpkins’ windy 17.91m in the same competition.
In 1987, at the age of 31, the next global title came up for grabs at the World Championships in Rome. Despite a best of 17.60m that year, Banks failed to make the final as he and Charlie Simpkins could only record qualifying efforts of 16.37m and 16.40m respectively. The competition nearly proved even more disappointing for Banks as his World Record mark only just survived as Khristo Markov of Bugaria pulled out a 17.92m effort to take gold ahead of Conley (17.67m) and Oleg Sakirkin of the Soviet Union (17.43m).
1988 was to be Banks’ last year as a senior athlete before he retired but he was to go out with bang! Jumping in Indianapolis in the American Trials, Banks bounded out to a wind-assisted (+4.9 m/s) first round effort of 18.06m to become the first man to jump over 18 metres! Not content with this he went even futher in the final round with another windy (+5.2 m/s) jump – 18.20m!!
Unfortunately there was to be no fairytale ending to his senior career at the Seoul Olympics later in the year as he repeated his 6th place of four years earlier, jumping 17.03m. Markov completed a global double winning with a new Olympic Record of 17.61m ahead of the Soviet athletes Igor Lapshin (17.52m) and Aleksandr Kovalenko (17.42m).
Banks’ love of the Triple Jump couldn’t keep him away for long, though, and by 2001 he was back competing as a Masters athlete. In 2006, as a 50 year-old, he jumped 14.00m, and the following year he won the M50 World Masters Championships in Riccioni, Italy, with 13.10m. At the 2011 World Masters Championships in Sacremento, he took silver in the M55 Triple Jump with 12.31m, despite carrying an injury. Hopefully we’ll see him Triple Jump again in the near future as he enters the M60 category, continuing to generate enthusiasm and interest from the crowd who love to hand-clap along to Mr. Triple Jump.