MATTAWA — Turns out, you can’t run the hurdles without your arms.
“Your arms are your levers,” said Andre Phillips, winner of the gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “If your arms aren’t right, your legs won’t be right.”
So Phillips, on a brisk early spring Saturday, showed a group of middle school and high school runners from across the state gathered at the Wahluke High School track some of the boring and tedious drills — beginning with a slow-motion walk over closely spaced hurdles to strengthen hip muscles and practice the proper placement of feet — he did daily to win Olympic gold.
“These drills are slow and methodical and a pain, but they’re necessary,” Phillips said, adding. “If it feels awkward, then you’re doing it right.”
And the kids did the leg lifts, practiced pulling their lead foot up properly and where they should put their arms when they hurdle. They did this over and over and over again.
“It’s about teaching them,” said Willie Banks, a former Olympian who is currently the principal of Stagg High School in Stockton, California. “Kids learn best when you’re making it relevant, when you bring the real world stuff in.”
“There’s no need to yell or get mad,” he added. “It’s just practice.”
Phillips was one of eight Olympians, former record holders and star athletes who were in Mattawa on Friday and Saturday as part of the Willie Banks World Record Camp to help young track and field athletes improve and expand their skills.
Along with Phillips were sprint coach Gregg Simmons, long jump gold medalist and record holder Mike Powell, discus thrower Jared Schuurmans, marathon champion Jacqueline Hansen, Olympic high jumper and volleyball player Erin Aldrich, Olympic marathoner and cross country champion Doris Heritage, and Banks himself, an Olympic gold medalist and world record high jumper.
“This is something a lot of us started about 10 years ago,” Banks said. “We wanted to do something young people, we wanted to Olympians together to help them out.”
It’s the second year in a row Banks’ World Record Camp has been in Mattawa, drawing nearly 200 kids from as far away as Walla Walla and Davenport.
“We’re just trying to grow out program,” said Wahluke High School Track and Field Coach Joel Dugan. “We’ve got every kind of size and school here, and every event.”
For Dugan, track and field is a “pure” event that allows athletes to perform unjudged and ungraded.
“Your time is your time and your distance is your distance,” Dugan said. “There’s no judgment, no opinions. You are what your numbers say you are.”
“Track is fun,” said silver medalist Powells. “You don’t have to be an Olympian to have fun. You don’t have to be great to be on the team. Everybody gets off the bench. Everybody gets to participate.”
According to Banks, the day-long clinic was not just for the kids, either. It’s just as important to have coaches attend as well.
“We need someone to remember the information that we give to the kids because they’re out here having fun and learning stuff but the coaches can help take that information and translate it when we’re done,” Banks said.
“That’s why we’re doing this,” he added.
And there are coaches, helping kids, watching closely, listening carefully, scribbling notes. Monty Soliday, a junior high track coach from Davenport, watches closely while Phillips shows his daughter Darby how to point her leading foot and later where her arm should go when she leaps a hurdle.
“We’re going to learn hopefully as much as the kids,” Soliday said.