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Track & Field: UL’s Willis shocks USA field

The only person that expected Lawrence Willis to find success Sunday at the AT&T USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships was Lawrence Willis.

Training by himself, without the coaching and sponsorship assistance available to most of the other athletes at the national meet, the Iota product and former UL All-American trusted himself and his faith.

As it turned out, that was more than enough.

Willis shocked the rest of the field in the men’s triple jump on Sunday’s final day of competition, posting a career-best 55-8 1/4 jump to finish as runner-up in the national championships. His finish, coming after a layoff of almost two years from competition, puts him on the U.S. team for the upcoming Pan American Games and the World Championships.

"I’m still kind of in shock," Willis said Monday. "It hasn’t really settled in that I’m going to Brazil and Japan in the next two months."

He’ll figure that out in time, probably quicker than the competition figured out who he was on Sunday after he turned in his best mark on his first trip down the runway. That stood as the competition’s best distance until Aarik Wilson of the Nike club went 55-11 3/4 on his fourth of six jumps.

"I thought that jump would get me one of the top spots," Willis said. "I was so caught up trying to jump 56 feet after that and reach the world ‘A’ standard (56-1 1/4) that my mind kind of drifted away from being in second place."

Willis, who prepped at Iota before winning four Sun Belt Conference triple jump titles for the Ragin’ Cajuns, finished four inches ahead of former Northwestern State standout, 2003 national champion and 2004 U.S. Olympian Kenta Bell (55-4 1/4) in the race for the runner-up slot.

Wilson, Willis and Bell will make up the U.S. team for the Pan American Games, scheduled July 22-29 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the World Track and Field Championships Aug. 25-Sept. 2 in Osaka, Japan. Leonville native and former LSU standout Walter Davis, the defending world champion, did not jump in the USA meet but is automatically qualified for the World Championships as defending champion.

"Walter was really the only person that knew about me," Willis said, "and he didn’t even know I was back jumping until I jumped at an LSU meet this year. I think I surprised the field. Everybody was focusing on Walter, Wilson, Bell and Rafeeq Curry … those were the guys listed as the key people in the triple jump."

Willis was under the national radar because of his absence from competition since finishing his degree requirements at UL in 2005. Work requirements with Acadian Ambulance and now with the Lafayette Sheriff’s Office took up most of his time until he began training last October.

Willis, working out mostly alone at UL’s Cajun Track, went 52-7 in UL’s Louisiana Classics and had a 54-1 effort at the LSU Alumni Gold meet in Baton Rouge in April that qualified him for the national meet. He had gone 55-7 in the 2004 Olympic Trials after a collegiate best of 53-11 while a Cajun.

"Going into the meet, I knew I was jumping as well as I did in 2004," Willis said. "I had kept my faith and kept working out, using what I learned in college. I was excited and determined to put out a good mark on my first jump. Walter wasn’t jumping, so someone had to put a mark out there."

Willis’ success made him the first UL product to reach the World Championships level since two-time U.S. Olympian Hollis Conway won the last of his six national high jump titles in 1994.

"All the work’s starting to pay off," Willis said. "But hopefully this is just a step, just the beginning. I’ve made it here and it’s time to go on from here."