Steve Lemke, the associate head coach and throws coach at the University of Florida, has coached eight Olympians in a career spanning nearly 30 years.
Lemke said 2008 Soldotna High School graduate Paige Blackburn has what it takes to become the ninth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, to be held at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
Blackburn, a captain in the Air Force, will be throwing the discus for a spot in the Rio Olympics, with the qualifying round Friday and the finals Saturday. NBC has said it will include the women’s discus finals in its Saturday coverage, which starts at 10 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time.
“She’s got a lot of the same characteristics of those people,” Lemke said of his Olympians. “No. 1 on that list is she’s very strong mentally.
“When the tension gets high and everything comes down to a throw, those people came through and Paige is the same type of person. I don’t think any situation is too big for her.”
The mental game will be important in selecting the three Americans to throw the discus in the Olympics because so many at the trials are similar physically.
Blackburn is currently ranked seventh on the list of American throwers this year with her mark of 200 feet, 8 inches, in Los Angeles in late March.
The mark was important because it met the Olympic qualifying standard of 200 feet, 1.5 inches, meaning that now if Blackburn gets a top three in the trials, she makes the Olympics.
As of Friday, there were eight Americans that had met the standard, with distances ranging from 200 feet, 5 inches, to 212 feet, 0 inches.
“Going in, it’s up for grabs,” Blackburn said Friday via cellphone while traveling to a final tuneup meet Sunday in San Diego. “It’s not like there are a clear three people dominating over the other girls.”
The throwers will be separated quickly. In Friday’s qualifying round, just three throws determine who makes the finals. In the finals, the marks reset. All 12 throwers get three throws in the finals, then the top eight throwers get three more throws.
Packing years of preparation into the pressure of just nine throws maximum is why the mental game is so important.
“At the very end, it really does come down to that,” Lemke said. “Some people are very strong technically and will always be there.
“But second, third, it can be anyone on that day. No spots are locked up.”
This will be the second Olympic trials for Blackburn, but it will be entirely different from her first.
In 2012, she was fresh off graduating from Air Force and competing in the shot put, discus, hammer throw and javelin for the Falcons.
Blackburn made the trials as the second-youngest thrower in javelin and finished 22nd of 24 competitors.
“I was just happy to be there,” Blackburn said. “I was more of an observer than a competitor. It was a great learning experience.”
In November of 2012, while working on her master’s degree at the University of Florida, Blackburn also started working with Lemke on the discus and javelin.
After a year and a half in Florida, her next assignment took her to Hawaii. But after a year and a half there, she made it into the Air Force World Class Athlete Program, allowing her to return to Florida and train with Lemke with the goal of making the Olympics.
To keep her life balanced, Blackburn has stayed active in civil engineering at Florida, teaching a class and publishing a manuscript.
The biggest leap forward in her track career came in the summer of 2015, when Lemke told Blackburn she had to choose between the discus and javelin.
“To do two throws at this level is virtually impossible,” Lemke said.
Blackburn said choosing to focus on the discus has worked. She has improved her personal best by over 12 feet in one year.
“I feel great physically,” Blackburn said. “The javelin is major wear and tear on the body.
“For this late in the season, my body still feels great.”
Blackburn said she is building up to another peak before the finals.
Lemke said the plan was for Blackburn to hit the Olympic qualifying standard early, which she accomplished in March. However, a period of struggles that followed after that were not planned.
But Lemke devised a plan to build Blackburn back up for the trials, and it has worked.
“I haven’t competed in about a month, but I’ve been making a lot of progress in practice,” Blackburn said. “I went through an intense training block and I’m really getting things back again.”
Blackburn’s father and stepmother, Keith and Donna Blackburn of Oklahoma, will be at the trials. Blackburn’s mother and stepfather, Margaret and Douglas Hawkinson of Soldotna, told Blackburn they are saving their money for Rio.
Lemke also won’t be able to make the trip due to a recent knee surgery. But Scott Irving, Blackburn’s former throws coach at Air Force, will be there.
“He was going to come as a fan, so I asked him to do me the honor of helping out during the trials,” Blackburn said. “He’s a great mental coach during competitions, great for sharpening the competitive edge on athletes.
“It will be just like old times.”
After the trials, Blackburn will sneak in a trip to Alaska, where she swept the shot put and discus at the prep state meet in 2007 and 2008.
Then, Olympics or no Olympics, her next Air Force assignment at the end of the summer will be in South Korea.
But Olympics or no Olympics, Blackburn said she has just scratched the surface of her potential and wants to keep training.
The World Class Athlete Program doesn’t become available until two years before the Olympics, so for a while Blackburn will be on her own.
“In 2020, I’ll still be 30 years old,” Blackburn said. “I’ll still be in my athletic peak.”
Lemke said Blackburn’s room for improvement is simply a matter of repetitions.
Living in a cold-weather state in high school, she lost out on reps. Competing in all the throws in college and not choosing the discus until a year ago, she lost even more reps.
“She’s had the number of throws most have at 21 or 22,” Lemke said. “If she wanted to put another four years in it, she’d really get some benefit.
“It’d be a long, hard grind before this is done, but she hasn’t reached her capability for sure.”
Blackburn admits that growing up in Alaska robbed her of some development early in her career, but she wouldn’t have had it any other way.