Known as the “Bouncing Barrister” former world triple jump record holder Willie Banks was a global icon of the sport back in the 1980s and now New Zealand fans could be set to see the star athlete compete at the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland.
The flamboyant 58-year-old Californian, credited as the man who popularised the slow, rhythmic hand clap now a common feature of many track and field meets, is a regular international masters competitor and he is keen on returning to New Zealand 35 years after last competing on these shores.
“I would love to compete at the 2017 World Masters Games in triple jump, high jump and possibly long jump,” admits Banks. “I’ll be 61 – which is a good age for me (he’ll be in the M60 category). If I’m healthy I think I’ll be there.
“I remember I had a blast competing in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton in 1982,” he recalls. “The people were always so nice and I had a great time travelling up and down the country. I also remember getting really badly burnt by the sun and I don’t normally burn!”
Willie enjoyed an outstanding career as an elite triple jumper. He competed at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games- placing sixth on each occasion - and also won a silver medal at the inaugural 1983 World Championships in Helsinki.
Yet the highlight of his career came in 1985 when he set a triple jump world record of 17.97m - which was to stand for ten years – at the US Championships in Indianapolis.
The former law school student retired from the sport aged 32 in1988 but returned to competitive athletics in unexpected circumstances in 2001. Coaching at the time, he was helping to rake the pit during a competition when he was taken aback by the excited reaction of one of the participants.
“I asked him why he was so excited and he said, he’d just broken the US M45 triple jump record,” explains Willie who runs a company HSJ (Hop, Step, Jump) which sells sports floors and field turf in Japan.
“I thought to myself, I can do that. So I lost a few pounds, got back into training and broke the record.”
Since then the San Diego-based athlete has consistently featured as a leading masters’ athlete in international events. In 2011 Willie landed double silver in the M55 triple jump and high jump at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento and the following year he set a US M55 record in the high jump.
To keep in tip-top shape he combines training four times a week with Zumba dance classes, but does he get as a big a buzz from the sport today as he did when he competed as an elite athlete?
“Absolutely, sometimes even more so, because back then it was a job and now it is like a fraternity and catching up with the guys,” he explains. “I just love to jump and I can now do without the pressure of winning or losing, which came when it was a job.”