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Track & Field: Willis chases Olympic dream

Local athlete faces quest with humility 

Bruce Brown • bbrown@theadvertiser.com • June 27, 2008

Lawrence Willis has never been big on self-promotion, but that should not be confused with lack of confidence or ability. 

The soft-spoken former UL Ragin’ Cajun All-American reminded track and field watchers how good he can be when he finished second in the triple jump at the USA Outdoors meet in 2007.

That earned Willis a spot on the U.S. team for the World Championships, despite operating virtually on his own after a year away from the sport.

"I prayed to do good, and it was amazing," Willis said. "My prayers were unfolding before my eyes. It was like I was in shock. Then, I went an inch past my personal best, to 55-8."

Only Aarik Wilson did better that day, at 55-11.75. Now, Willis will be matched with Wilson and other standouts like 2005 World Champion Walter Davis at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. It’s a second chance at making that squad after a near-miss fifth-place showing in 2004 while in college.

"It’s the same people," Willis said. "Walter Davis, obviously. Aarik Wilson is big now, and Kenta Bell and Rafeeq Curry. Basically, we’ll all be fighting for the top three spots."

Willis flirted with that elite status four years ago, and with more focus he might have made it.

"When I got there, mentally I said ‘I’m just going to jump,’ " Willis said of the Trials. "It was that college mentality.

"On preliminary day, I was the 10th of the 12 who advanced to the finals. Then in the finals I improved from 10th to 5th. That’s not bad. Two more spots, and I would have been on the team. From that point on, I looked at the other athletes and at myself and said I can do it.

"I didn’t give up after the ’04 Trials. I kept praying. There was no way I would be fifth at the Trials and stop jumping."

But Willis did just that in 2006, taking a break after finishing at UL in 2005. He worked for Acadian Ambulance, then switched to the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. He returned to action last year, without a coach and ad-libbing his way back to the world stage.

"Last year was hard, because I was doing it off the top of my head," said Willis, 26. "I didn’t have a coach, and in the triple jump, you need that extra pair of eyes. To try to be (both) a coach and an athlete is hard.

"I learned that I didn’t have that college mentality any more. I had more focus. And, I’ve still got more in me."

"To be honest with you, for a guy (ranked) in the top 5, I bet he’s the only one doing it," said Tommy Badon, Westminster Christian Academy athletic director and former UL assistant coach. "I don’t know anybody else who’s coaching himself. It’s very, very difficult to be consistently good, to push yourself to do better."

Despite that challenge, Willis excelled, and success in 2007 became a springboard for a more concentrated effort.

"Now I have a jump coach here in Paula Ogunbanjo (UL assistant coach and triple jumper) and Coach Boo (former UL assistant Irving Schexnayder) sends me workouts every week," Willis said. "It’s a little better. I actually have a workout to follow, instead of doing it off the top of my head."

"I’m just his eyes," Ogunbanjo said. "There are certain things that you do not see. I also provide that encouraging voice, try to motivate him to continue. He’s a great person to work with, very focused and determined, a hard worker. He has a lot of faith in his own ability."

"Paula is a former triple jumper, so she knows," Willis said.

"I know about the phases of the event, know if your second phase is not on point," Ogunbanjo said. "Plus, when he has aches and pains, I can suggest, ‘Do this.’ "

"I left Acadian Ambulance and started to work for the Sheriff’s Department, and my work schedule (6 a.m.-2 p.m.) was an answer from God," Willis said. "It gave me afternoons off, and I got back to training. I just love to jump, and now I have time to do it."

Willis got a look at Hayward Field in Eugene this spring, competing in the Prefontaine Classic at the mecca of U.S. track and field. Results weren’t positive – a fifth-place 53-5 – but the experience was.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "I had never been there, I was the first jumper and there were only five jumping. The crowd was great. They were clapping. I was thinking about other things besides the jump.

"They called me at the last minute to go. I got the call on Wednesday and was jumping on Sunday. But, it was a blessing just to be there. It’s Track Town, USA. Fans really root for you and clap for you."

Fellow Sheriff’s Office employees will be doing the same next weekend, and they have plenty of company.

"I’ve gotten a lot of support, from my track teammates, frat brothers, my mom, my sister," Willis said. "And everybody that knows me from high school still calls.

"I got a letter from a lady who had run at McNaspy Stadium (on the UL campus) in 1949, supporting me. It was typewritten, on a typewriter. Just the way she talked made me realize the way people look at me. To me, it’s another meet. But I’m going to the Trials and it’s different in how they look at me and where I’m going."

Quietly, as usual, Willis expects big things.

"This year is going to be a very special year," he said. "I will be jumping on my mom’s birthday – July 4th – and again on July 6. My birthday is July 12. And, if I make the team, we’ll be leaving on Aug. 12, which is Paula’s birthday.

"I think everything is coming together."

Olympic trials


The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials begin today at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and run through July 6. The triple jump qualifying will be July 4, with the finals set for July 6.

Lawrence Willis



  • 2007 USA Outdoor runner-up in the triple jump (55-8.25), trailing only Aarik Wilson (55-11.75)


  • 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials, sixth place (55-7)


  • 2004 NCAA Outdoors, third place (54-8.25)


  • 2003 NCAA Outdoors, fourth place