An hour before the triple jump at the Jack-in-the-Box Invitational in San Diego's Sports Arena Friday night, Willie Banks stretched and danced beneath the filling stands, breathing deeply of the sharp vapors of wintergreen and anticipation. "I'm ready," he said. "Sound, been training well." He looked at his watch. "It's time for a world record. If those people out there want to see one, all they have to do is ask."
A man of the people, Willie Banks. None of the usual hushed, reverential moments before a jump for him. "What's so special about jumpers that they need quiet?" he said. "I need noise, I need juice, I need attention. Without the emotion that comes from a yelling crowd, there's a missing ingredient. I am made to translate that emotion into punch."
Banks warmed up to The Rolling Stones' Start Me Up on his stereo headphones. Upon being introduced, he cheered the crowd when it cheered him. His first jump was 54'10¾". The world record he was after was 56'9½", set by Keith Connor last year. Banks's second try, with the crowd of 11,869 catching on to what he was about, booming him along the runway, was 55'10¼". "Next time! Next time!" shouted Banks.
Then the two-mile began, a fine field moving at a hot pace. As San Diego native Thom Hunt took the lead, just after the conclusion of a 4:11 opening mile, the crowd stood and roared for him; at that instant Banks hit the takeoff board perfectly, thrust his foot down for his second bound with resounding force and almost sailed out of the pit. He knew he had the record, and leaped onto the track, where he tried to slap hands with the astonished two-milers. As soon as the officials, who measured the jump at 57'1½", confirmed the record, there was a celebration in which Banks all but hugged every spectator individually. "Here, indoors, is where the emotion can really work," he said. "With the people behind me, there's nothing I can't do." With no more pit before him, however, he passed his last three jumps. "Sure there's more to come," he said. "From me and the crowd. Hey, if they'd screamed for me like they did for Padilla...Boom! 58 feet."
The Padilla of whom Banks was envious was his Athletics West teammate Doug, who had followed the pace of Adrian Royle, Steve Lacy and Hunt until the final seven laps of the 22-lap two-mile and then set out in pursuit of the last American indoor record held by the late Steve Prefontaine, the 8:20.4 he ran at this meet in 1974. "I felt good," said Padilla, "which was amazing because I've been tired all week from the Millrose 5,000." That was the race in which he had relieved Alberto Salazar of the American indoor record with a 13:20.55. Now as Padilla leaned into the steep San Diego turns with an ease that seemed uncanny for one with his long, high-kicking stride, it was clear that here was the best indoor distance runner the U.S. has ever produced. "I don't know why I'm so comfortable indoors," he said later. "The first time I ever ran a banked turn it felt perfectly natural."
With a quarter to go, Padilla needed to finish in 62 seconds for the record. He dropped his arms and began a long sprint, completing that final 440 in 58.5 for an American indoor record 8:16.8. He had passed 3,000 meters in 7:46.5, to break the official American indoor mark at that distance as well. His display of power so late in the race changed the crowd's response from a shrieked appeal to the low, involuntary moan of the deeply impressed. Yet Padilla, a humble man, felt he had used all he had. "It was a nearly ideal race," he said, "with the crowd and the other guys doing the work. I'm sure content with it."
Padilla's satisfaction contrasted sharply with the voracity of one Mary Decker Tabb. Having already set the women's indoor world record for the mile twice this winter—the second being the 4:21.47 she'd run the week before at the Millrose Games—she seemed inflamed by the experience and by the nearness of 4:20. Her husband, Ron Tabb, stood beside the track with a list of splits that would result in that time. The paper trembled. "I've never gotten as nervous before any of my races as I do before hers," said Tabb, who is a 2:11 marathoner. "John Walker says he finds Mary's races magnificent, and boring—because she's always so far in front—but they sure aren't to me."
Or to the now-crazed San Diego throng. Going out gently in 64.6 for the quarter, Decker Tabb picked the pace up to 64.3, for a 2:08.9 half. Long since alone, she kept on steadily, a fine blend of grace and swiftness. The three-quarters was 3:15.2, a 66.3. Through the hoarse encouragement she ran to the finish in 4:20.5. Another second cut from the world record. Only 80 yards into her victory lap she was wincing when friends caught her eye. After explaining to pursuing reporters that she was happy, of course, to be always improving, but that it was frustrating to miss 4:20 by so little, she sought out Ron and got a kiss. Well, several. Pulling away, she looked at the splits he had kept. "That third quarter really sucked, didn't it?" she said. "Now I've just got to get stronger."
"No, you don't," said Ron. "You need someone to run against. When we get to Europe this summer...."
"Well at least it was faster than last week," said Mary, "but the only trouble with that is if I ran 4:14, I'd turn right around and want to run 4:10."
Ah, greed. It was a luxury denied the male milers, four of whom had broken 3:50 outdoors. No matter what the pace, the field was so strong and deep that a close race was inevitable. And so as Steve Scott passed the three-quarters in 2:56.5, he was closely stalked, in order, by Tom Byers, Walker and Ray Flynn. Scott was vulnerable because he alone had followed the erratic pace set by rabbit Eddie Davis through quarters of 56.7 and 61.5 before taking the lead with a 58.3. Byers had started slower, caught up when the pace dropped and, with four laps to go, had Walker boxed on the inside. Walker, the first man ever to break 3:50, which he did with 3:49.4 in 1975, is now 30 and, for the first time since 1976, free of leg injuries. He was drawn and tan from hard training in the New Zealand summer. Now he dropped back out of Byers' box. Byers, thinking Walker was out of contention, moved to the inside behind Scott. Walker then came on with two laps left, boxing Byers. With a lap left. Walker exploded into the lead, sealing Byers against the rail until he had passed. Walker hit the tape in 3:52.8, the season's fastest time. Byers ran 3:53.6 in second, Flynn 3:54.1 in third and Scott a weary 3:55.0 in fourth. "It was one of those races," said Scott's coach, Len Miller, "when you have to be proud of your own effort and be happy for the other guy."
Walker was plenty happy for Walker. "This was the sixth time I've run here," he said, "and the first time I've won. I surprised them. I don't finish like that very often. I even surprised me."
As Walker was saying those words, there was another great roar. For the third time this year Billy Olson had broken the world indoor record in the pole vault, this time adding a quarter of an inch to make 18'9½". "The takeoff was smooth, the transition was smooth," said Olson, who affects a remarkably offhand manner about these deeds. "I knew I'd get up and over if I didn't fall apart."
Olson's three tries at 19'¼" were all close and, to observers standing near the pit, were a study in abrupt transitions, from the breakneck abandon of his sprint down the runway, to the violent jolt of the pole slamming into the box, to the sinking bend of the implement, to the slingshot ascent, to the long, soft—and on these occasions, unhappy—fall. It seemed a marvel that Olson could emerge from this complex sequence always the down-home explainer of simple details. "It went well this evening because we [Olson and Pacific Coast Club teammate Earl Bell] came out in the afternoon and worked with the carpenters to build a little extension of the runway so I could start out on the track," he said. "Once I had made the right adjustments [indeed, he had badly missed his first two tries at 18 feet], it was just a question of how fast I could run down this hard ol' ramp."
At 19 feet it wasn't quite fast enough. "Those attempts at the end were good for the way I felt" said Olson as he cleaned stickum from his hands with lighter fluid. "Didn't feel I could do 16 on the runway, but the crowd got me going. You have to really give this house credit. They deserved everything they saw tonight."
Banks warmed up with The Stones, then got what he wanted with a record triple.
For the third time this season Olson soared over the world indoor pole-vault standard.