Two-time Olympian Willie Banks does Zumba to stay in shape at his Carlsbad home.
Amid the pandemic, two-time Olympian Willie Banks is doing Zumba to stay in shape. Photo by Hitomi Banks

Willie Banks was ranked second in the world in 1980 but lost a chance for Olympic gold in the triple jump because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games. Forty years later, the one-time world record holder is again robbed of glory.

The Tokyo Olympics, which he would have attended as a member of track and field’s world governing body, has been delayed until July 2021.

It’s especially painful since he has many ties to Japan. His wife is a native of Nagoya. And his sports management and consulting business (with a website in Japanese and English) has done a lot of business in the Land of the Rising Sun.

In February, the two-time Olympian (1984 and 1988) was in Japan — and also made trips to Pocatello, Idaho, and New York City. Then came coronavirus.

Banks, a Carlsbad resident who starred at Oceanside High School and UCLA, faces the same circumstances as many around the world. Hunkering down at home, reaching out to friends.

Here’s our email chat with Banks, a member of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Times of San Diego: How are you working during this pandemic? What telework tools are you using?

Willie Banks: Fortunately for me, I always work at home. I have all the necessary telecommuting equipment I need but I have had to add some software. The pandemic has done a lot for my “honey do list.” I picked the oranges and lemons on our fruit trees, I installed an antenna for our TVs so we can get free over-the-air channels, and fixed some leaking pipes that needed my unprofessional attention.

Willie Banks set his triple jump world record in 1980.
Willie Banks set a triple jump world record of 58-11½ in 1985. Image via Track & Field News

Every day I receive hundreds of emails to sift through, but that is down considerably because of the pandemic. I do most of my work internationally, so I am up night and day working. It is great to be able to work at home because I can be in my PJ’s or sweatpants all the time.

One thing that has helped me through this scare is volunteering and giving back to the community. I have dedicated a part of this time to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I have been asked to join a group of San Diegans to help raise money through a program called Man and Woman of the Year.

It is a unique program where each nominee is responsible for raising money in support of the nonprofit. I am trying to raise $250,000 this year. It is a heavy lift, especially during this time, but my sister passed away with leukemia last year and I am determined to do something extraordinary in her name because of the love and respect I have for her. This will keep me busy for the next 12-13 weeks.

I had travel plans for this part of the year, including the Olympic Games in Japan, but now I don’t travel so I have a little cabin fever now. The effort for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is helping me to stay focused on something much bigger than me!

How many in your household — number of kids and adults? How are you all getting along?

My wife and I share our home. My adult son and I were in Japan two weeks ago, so we had to self-quarantine [and] as a consequence my son is staying here now because he doesn’t want his wife to be infected, if he has it. It has been two weeks now, so I am trying to get him to go home. I think he likes being pampered by his mom.

I think the fact that people have to spend time together is doing good things for my family. Also, I see so many people together walking and taking their dogs out in my neighborhood, I think it might be a good thing for marriages (and for dogs!).

How are you getting food and other necessities? How often do you personally go out, or are you taking delivery mostly?

We get our food the old-fashioned way — we grow it or we go to the market and purchase it. Right now there are two excellent cooks in the house, not including me. I am getting fed really well and I am enjoying my son’s cooking talent, which I didn’t know he had. I know my daughter-in-law must miss his meals. I know I will miss them!

Personally, I go to the market about twice per week. Often, I have to drive to San Diego to the Asian markets to find things that you can’t find in the local markets. It seems that the Asian markets are well-stocked for some reason.

Aside from official local, state and government channels, how are you getting news about the outbreak? How much social media do you use?

I get many newsletters and I listen to international news, especially from Japan, my wife’s home country. We hear about the progress of the outbreak and we worry that people are not being smart about social distancing. We worry that the effort is not being enforced seriously enough to push people to take the measures necessary to blunt the virus.

Olympian Willie Banks thinks marketing by private groups separate from the sport's governing body can revive the popularity of track and field.
Willie Banks is dedicating time to Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, inspired by his late sister Thelma. Photo by Ken Stone

I try to be positive and pray that people will adhere to the stringent rules, but sometimes when I see the errors that are often made, I find it hard to comprehend how this will ever end. However, I remain positive.

I read blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit. But mostly, I listen to the radio or I read the news on outlets like the Times of San Diego to keep track of the spread of the virus. I like to watch or listen to Governor Newsom’s and Governor Cuomo’s press conferences. I also listen to the press conferences by the CDC to get my facts about the outbreak in the U.S.

How do you ward off negative emotions — fear, anxiety, depression? What steps are you taking to preserve mental and physical health?

Fortunately, I don’t have too much anxiety, although I have had a few skips of my heart lately that have concerned me. I try to keep active at home. I cleared a place in the family room so that my wife and I can do our workout. My wife is a big fan of Jazzercise, so she takes one or two online classes every day.

Olympian Willie Banks, new member of the World Athletics governing council, came to observe the Olympic Trials.
Willie Banks, a new member of the World Athletics governing council, observed the Santee Olympic Trials in 50K race walk in January. Photo by Ken Stone

I love to do Zumba, so I do my class several times each week along with walking the neighborhood and using a new product called Kaatsu, to gain strength and repair injuries. So far, everything seems to be working. I have been able to lose weight and gain muscle mass with the exercises I am doing.

I am also using this time to learn some new things. I have just finished a course to become certified as an apprentice track and field official. It is something I have wanted to do for many years. And I finally did it!

What else do you want people to know about your own personal response to the outbreak?

I hope people will not think of the social distancing as a terrible thing. I hope people will turn this lemon into lemonade. It is important to remember to give generously of your time, talent and treasure. It is a time to get educated and be wise. It is a time to reconnect with your loved ones who you are cooped up with, or that can be contacted through the many video connections that we have through the internet.

It is a time to get fit and healthy. It is a time to make others feel good — and I hope that is what I can do.

Third in a series. We invite suggestions for interview subjects — prominent San Diegans in politics, business, nonprofits, sports and the arts. Write to Ken Stone, contributing editor, or post a comment.