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Olympic champ brings magic to La Costa Canyon

CARLSBAD — “Woohoo, do you know what she did? Did you see that? A competitor is someone who demands their turn and she demanded it,” the coach said.
It’s just another normal day at practice: the 180-member team is arranged in groups according to events, some stragglers hurry to tie shoelaces before sprinting to join in. But the members of the La Costa Canyon track and field high-jump team are receiving some encouragement from a volunteer coach, and not just any volunteer. The coach barking orders is former Olympian and worldwide record triple-jump holder Willie Banks.
Banks stands well over 6 feet tall and is dressed in a blue “Team USA” track outfit; a bit intimidating until one catches the spark in his eye as he starts running alongside the jumble of high school kids during warm-ups.
“I love it out here,” Banks said. “I love being at the track. The kids are cool and I love the coaches.” His answer is simple, but Banks looks surprised when asked to put into words his
overwhelming love for the sport.
Banks’ track career began at Oceanside High School and continued while he was both an undergraduate and law student at UCLA. A two-time Olympian, he broke the world record for the triple jump in 1985 gaining almost two feet over the previous record. Banks’ achievement wasn’t beat until 10 years later.
While he has spent years coaching professional athletes and working as president of the U.S. Olympians Association, Banks chose to return to the high school level as a volunteer coach.
As a Carlsbad resident his children attended LCC and were members of the track team, leading to a friendship with Head Coach Joe Coehn.
“We were very pleased when he wanted to come back and help. He knows how to teach his stuff and how to connect with (students),” Coehn said.
Banks explains he was ready to return to the Maverick field, especially because he continues to compete on the Masters Level and was looking to get in shape.
“I never learned so much about my event until I coached high school and had to break it down,” he said.
After warmups, the LCC high jump students begin practicing their “runs,” the technique before jumping above the pole, under the careful watch of Banks. Each time he pulls the individual student aside to provide feedback, demonstrating movements.
“Other (coaches) could show you how to do it, but he tells you piece by piece,” said senior Clark Pain. “You really feel like you improve a little bit every day.”
Banks is generous with his encouragement, mixing in personal stories of his world championship experiences to motivate the students.
“With (Coach Banks), you want to do what he says more. You know he’s done a lot and you want to do what he’s done,” said freshman Krista Ek.
Austin Scruggs, a senior, said Banks does have “higher expectations” for the students, but after four years of coaches that “don’t push as hard or don’t know as many things, (Coach Banks) makes me try harder.”
“If he says you’re good than you probably are pretty good,” Ek said.
Practice is winding down, but Banks gives his eager attention to the few remaining students asking questions.
“I’m trying to make kids enjoy themselves while learning — that’s the key,” he said. “And if I get them seriously interested in track and field, then my work is done.”