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The rest cost Banks dearly. When he got to the World Cup in Rome in September, his leg had healed enough to allow him to compete in the triple again, but he had missed too much training and had lost a lot of muscle mass. Worse yet, while he was warming up, a dour official took his earphones away, and Banks was bereft of his music. The fans nearest the pit kept cheering, but, says Banks, "I was trying so hard and nothing would come to me." He came in third, with 55'11"; Oliveira, whose career would be ended when he injured his right leg in an automobile accident four months later, won at 57 feet. But Banks had made his mark with the crowd, and it was he who had brought sudden attention to the triple.
Banks got into triple-jumping when Oceanside High included the event in its program in 1973, his junior year at the school. He had been a high and long jumper and a hurdler, but young Willie was always eager to try something new. Oceanside's track coach. Ken Barnes, was still learning about those strange kangaroo leaps of the triple from books and films when he had to double the length of the long jump pit, because Banks was popping 44-foot triples right off the bat. He had quickly learned how to "hop" on his right leg for the first part of the triple and land stretched way out in the third-part, the "jump," but like all novice triple jumpers, he was having difficulty mastering the middle part, the "step," where he had to bound first off his right leg and then his left. In this crucial part of the triple. Banks was too short. He consulted Bill Christopher, a retired lieutenant colonel and geography teacher at Oceanside who had been a triple jumper at a Baton Rouge high school back in the '30s when Louisiana was about the only state where the hop, step and jump, as the triple was then called, was contested. "The triple jump consists of three equal parts, Christopher told Banks. "You have to have a steady rhythm—tom, tom, tom, not tom, tatom."
Banks also wasn't above gleaning a lesson from a rival. At the Oceanside-Vista dual meet that year, he studied Al McClure, a Vista senior and the favorite to win the event. He saw that McClure went nine feet in the step phase, while Banks had never gone more than four or five. "So that's how you do it," he told McClure's coach, Jim Downs, and then he simply added three feet to his step and won with a 48-foot jump.
In both his junior and senior years. Banks was California high school champion in the event, setting state meet records of 49'7¼" and then 50'7". "We won almost all the relay titles because of Willie," says Barnes. "You could count on him winning three events. In his senior year he became San Diego County champion in the high hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump, all in one day."
"I recruited Willie for two years," says UCLA Track Coach Jim Bush. Little did Bush know that Banks had decided in elementary school that he would go to UCLA. That was when he got a gleaming blue-and-gold UCLA button at the Orange County Fair and pinned it to the wall in his bedroom.
Georgia Banks, a big, bustling woman needed her irrepressible sense of humor in raising determined young Willie and his four brothers and sisters, but she was up to the job. Georgia's husband, William Augustus Banks II, who served in the Marine Corps until 1973 and saw duty in Korea and Vietnam, was forced to leave much of the children's education to her. Even now, he spends weekdays working as a personnel accountant at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino and is free to visit his family only over weekends.
Still, the photograph of Gunnery Sergeant Banks in the den of the family's comfortable home, showing a dignified man in uniform, decorated with eight of the 13 medals he has been awarded, serves as a constant reminder that the sergeant expected as much from his children as his wife did. Both could point to examples of excellence in their families: Georgia's uncle, William McKinley Battle, known simply as Uncle Mac, was the only black lawyer in Kinston, N.C. When he died in 1963, he left all his books to 7-year-old Willie. Willie's grandfather, William Augustus Banks Sr., had been a minister and poet in Chattanooga.
When Sgt. Banks was home, he was the disciplinarian, reminding his children that they wouldn't succeed in life without putting in what he most believed in—hard work. "His word was the law," says Willie. "Everybody feared him. From my father I learned to work, to discipline myself, to have self-confidence. I think I got my direction from my mother. My parents didn't have a lot of money, but they made all these opportunities available to us. I grabbed every opportunity; I didn't want to miss out on anything. I was probably the luckiest kid in the family."
Through the years the Banks family lived on various Marine bases in California, Georgia made sure her children were exposed to whatever opportunities each new post presented. "Mother can't swim," she says. "Therefore, every one of my kids had to learn to swim so they could save me." They also learned to ride horses, play golf, ice-skate and ski. "Often we were the only black people doing these things," Georgia says. She played football with them during the day and read to them at night.
Willie began to read when he was four. He won his first trophy—in a rodeo barrel race—at seven. He made eagle scout at 13. But as Georgia puts it, he was also "the cryingest baby you ever saw." In elementary school, if he missed a question in a test, he cried. He couldn't accept a B or a C. The teachers told Georgia to take Willie to a psychiatrist. "There's nothing wrong with him," said the doctor. "Every parent would like to have a child like that."