In her quest to throw the discus in the Rio Summer Olympics, it’s one step down, one step to go for 2008 Soldotna High School graduate Paige Blackburn.
Blackburn, who competed in college for Air Force, threw the discus 200 feet, 8 inches, Friday to win the event at the Power Conference Cardinal and Gold Challenge at the University of Southern California. She was competing at the meet unattached.
The bigger news is that the heave beat the Olympic qualifying standard of 200 feet, 1.5 inches.
In order to make the Olympics, an athlete must hit the Olympic qualifying standard and must be in the top three in the country.
Blackburn gets the chance to take care of that second step at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon, from July 1 to 10.
Thanks to her Friday throw, Blackburn is now solidly in the mix to make the U.S. team. She said the throw took her from being ranked 17th amongst this country’s discus throwers to sixth.
“Yesterday was my coming out meet to being an elite discus thrower,” Blackburn said Saturday via cellphone between flights back to Florida. “I knew that throw was there, but that was more me kicking down the door and saying, ‘Hey, I’m here.’
“All the pressure came off my shoulders and now I can relax.”
In 2012, Blackburn competed in the U.S. trials in the javelin, but she was ranked 22nd of 24 competitors and also was the second-youngest thrower in the field.
“Four years later, I’ll go in with a sea of international competition under my belt,” Blackburn said. “I won’t just be happy to be there anymore.”
Blackburn is in the Air Force World Class Athletes Program, which allows her to train to try and make the Olympics.
Based at the University of Florida and coached by Steve Lemke, she trains five to six hours a day for six days a week.
She also is a first lieutenant in the Air Force, ready to be pinned a captain in May. She has kept up with her engineering education by volunteering to teach a class, and getting ready to publish a research paper this spring.
But her top priority is making the Olympics, and a major step toward that goal came in August 2015, when Lemke made her choose between javelin and discus.
Blackburn said the training for the two at an elite level does not mesh well, and she added dropping the violent action of the javelin has her feeling much better physically.
“Since I’ve picked discus, I’ve gotten so much better at it,” she said.
But until Friday, the improvement really had not shown in competition. Blackburn threw 188 feet, 3 inches, two weeks ago to match her personal record from 2013 and qualify for the U.S. trials, but that still wasn’t close to what she was doing in practice.
“I’d been so tight and anxious,” she said of her competitions. “I couldn’t relax and get rid of the stress.”
She delved into sports psychology books before Friday’s toss and said it helped.
Yet after four of her six throws Friday, she hadn’t gotten over 189 feet. On the fifth, she slipped out of the ring.
“My coach came over and absolutely ripped me a new one,” Blackburn said. “I totally agreed with him.”
She stepped back into the throwing ring and uncorked a beauty that, like most of her good throws, was headed down the right side of the “V” in which the throwers must land the discus.
Problem was, it was headed a little too far right.
“I was yelling, ‘Get in! Get in!” Blackburn said. “It just got in.”
And with that, Blackburn said she joined a new club of discus throwers. With the weight of the Olympic standard off her shoulders, Blackburn said more improvement is coming.
“By the end of the season, by the beginning of the trails, I want to get (my U.S. ranking) whittled down to fourth or third,” she said.
Blackburn will be joined at the trails by 2015 Kenai Central graduate Allie Ostrander, a freshman at Boise State who has qualified to compete in the 5,000 meters.
Blackburn can’t speak for Ostrander, but knows just how positive the central Kenai Peninsula and Soldotna was for her athletic career, starting with her throwing coach at SoHi, Galen Brantley Jr.
“I had a throwing coach in high school who actually knew what he was doing,” Blackburn said. “My mentors in all my sports were just so strong.”