Banks got involved in school politics at Oceanside High. He was president of his freshman class, vice-president of his sophomore class and vice-president of the Associated Student Body as a junior and senior.
In 1973 Downs and Bob Larsen, who then coached at Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., took an all-star track team of 40 teen-agers on a five-week trip to Finland and Sweden. Even though Banks was one of the youngest members of the group, he was picked as its spokesman. "He made the speeches," says Downs. "We always introduced him as the future mayor of Oceanside. He would come on like a junior George Jessel."
At UCLA Banks majored in political science, and he pursued a master's in urban studies on a Coro Fellowship, awarded to outstanding student leaders. His master's is pending because he's still working on his thesis, entitled "Redevelopment in Montebello," which deals with the renewal of the section of East L.A. of that name.
Georgia says that Willie has long wanted to become President of the U.S., but recently he has been reevaluating that goal. "Most youngsters are impressed by the power of the President," he says. "As I grew older, I started to analyze what the presidency was. I want to help as many people as I can, and the job of the President isn't designed to help people on a one-on-one basis. I'm into that. I want to go out to people and talk to them like I'm a person and not a mystical supreme being."
Banks may have chosen UCLA because it has an outstanding political science department, but it happens that the school also has a reputation for turning out some of the best triple jumpers in the country, most notably Tiff and James Butts, another former American record-holder. Banks served notice that he was eager to carry on that tradition in the UCLA-USC dual meet of his freshman year, 1975. He still recalls it as his most thrilling moment in sport. According to the dopesheets. Banks figured to finish fourth in the long jump and third in the triple. The day before the meet he had told Maxie Parks, the anchor man on the mile relay, which is usually the last event of a college meet, "Just once I'd like to be you and be the guy who clinches a meet." The next day Banks was the surprise winner in the long jump, and the triple jump lasted so much longer than usual that the outcome of the meet did indeed depend on Banks's last attempt. Parks walked up to Banks, who stood third in the competition after the first five jumps, and said, "You always wanted to be me. Here's your chance." Banks leaped 55'1", two feet farther than he ever had before, which was good enough to win the event, give UCLA the team championship, earn a ride off the field on the shoulders of his teammates and set 15,000 fans in UCLA's Drake Stadium to cheering a triple jumper, probably for the first time in their lives. It was a preview of what Banks would be able to do for his event worldwide a few years later.
Banks now works out with Bruin seniors Chip Benson and Dokie Williams, who are both coached by Larsen, who has moved from Grossmont to UCLA. "I don't coach Willie," says Larsen. "On the contrary, he helps me." The three jumpers do special drills together, bounding from the top of one wooden box to the ground, then to the next box. "There are days when Chip and I don't feel like doing the boxes," says Williams, "but Willie always gets us going. He'll just grab me by the ear and drag me out there, and often those turn out to be my best days. He'll always go first and attack the boxes, and then he'll tell us what it's like to be floating on air. And he'll say, "There it is! Sixty feet!' "
It would take a 21-foot hop, an 18-foot step and a 21-foot jump to get to the 60-foot mark, and many believe that Banks will be the first to get there. He now touches down at 19, 18 and 20 feet when he jumps 57, and he knows that he will have to improve his speed down the runway and carry the added velocity all the way to his jackknife landing.
Since Banks started setting American records last year—one indoors and five outdoors so far—it has been rumored that his success is the result of a secret Tiff passed on to him. Tiff, who is 32 years old and a well-received surrealistic painter, is regarded as something of a triple-jumping guru. In the spring of 1980 he began working with Banks because, as he told him, "You just don't know how to triple-jump." From Tiff, Banks picked up a significant change in his hop phase: Instead of cocking the knee of his right—or lead—leg throughout the hop, the classic position, he stretches both legs as straight out as he can, performing almost a split in midair, reaching for a greater distance. It's pure ballet. Ron Livers, another Tiff disciple, uses the same technique.
Banks also adopted Tiffs philosophy that triple-jumping is an art form, a dance rather than an athletic event. "I think of it as a single movement," he says. "I'm swinging. It's not like I'm touching down at all." Tiff, who is an intense conversationalist, spent long hours talking to Banks. Banks. Tiff said, could jump so far that people wouldn't believe their eyes. He would jump with horses and they would hold each other up in the air. "He likes to say things that are on the edge of reality," says Banks. "Finally, the businessman in me took over, and I realized that you cannot spend so much time talking." He had a falling-out with Tiff and Livers over the Olympic boycott. Tiff and Livers decided that all three of them should stay away from the Olympic Trials because they were a futile exercise; Banks disagreed and went on to win there.
When Tiff is asked about the secret that he's said to have passed on to Banks, he speaks elliptically of his former disciple: "I have jumped 60 feet in the privacy of myself. For those who have seen me do it, it is impossible to explain. Sixty feet is painful. It turns you into a completely different human being. I taught Willie to prepare himself for that."