The Albion College registrar lists Blake Blair as a biology major, but he's a good student of the history of the Briton swimming program, too.
The junior from Marshall, Mich., is in the middle of a breakthrough season in distance freestyle events. He hopes his career mirrors that of former teammate Brad Melpolder, '14, who became a Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion his junior year.
"I was motivated to be like my peers," Blair, who capped the first half of the season by shaving nearly 10 seconds off his goal when he completed the 1,650-yard freestyle in 16:36.98 at the Carthage Winter Classic Dec. 6. "I looked up to Brad because of how hard he worked. He had a similar story in that he was not a spectacular swimmer his first two years, but he came around his junior year – my first-year – and wins (the MIAA title) in the 500 and got third in the mile with spectacular times. Seeing how hard he worked and what he put into his swimming gives me motivation to have a season like that."
The drop in time Blair has achieved is remarkable considering the course load he carried during the recently completed fall semester and the impact it had on his training. A 3 ½ hour lab session for his analytical chemistry class would end in time for Blair to walk into the aquatic center when his teammates were finishing their workouts on Thursday evening.
Already tired from a day that started with a morning practice at 5:30 a.m. and hungry upon arriving at the pool at 6 p.m., it would have been understandable if Blair had followed his teammates to the dining hall. Instead, he endured the monotony of training for his mile-long races in solitude.
"Swimming is a tough sport to do by yourself, but he is capable of pushing himself," Albion Head Coach Jake Taber, who has followed Blair's career since his time as a club swimmer in middle school. "It's difficult to stay motivated when teammates are not around."
Taber added Blair is just as committed when it comes to his dry land conditioning. It was not unusual for the coach to see Blair jogging the sidewalks of downtown Marshall while he was strolling with his wife and children early on a weekend morning during the summer.
It's that commitment, Taber says, that has propelled Blair to reach the wall faster than more naturally gifted competitors. It doesn't take long to notice Blair doesn't have the above-average height, broad shoulders, long arms, and long torso thought to be the stereotype of top swimmers.
The challenge for the season's second half
Blair will be training alone again when the Albion swimmers depart campus for a two-week break before the Christmas holiday. The Britons return to competition Dec. 30 with a dual meet against Transylvania University during a trip to Florida and they have a two-day invitational at Calvin College in early January.
The questions now become how Blair will respond to knowing he's achieved one of the best times of any swimmer in the MIAA heading into the league's championship meet in February and whether he can drop time again.
The swimmer who used to search for the positive reinforcement from all the laps, lifting and jogging has set a goal of collecting a medal awarded to the top three finishers in an event in the league.
"This feels indescribable," Blair said. "Taber and I talked after the Carthage meet and I just said 'Thank you' because I never thought I could go this fast. It is reassuring for the hard work to pay off.
"Taber meets with the swimmers individually after Carthage, and when our meeting comes around I have a feeling it won't be a 10-minute discussion," Blair added. "We will re-evaluate the goals because having a meet like Carthage makes me hungry to do it again. I'm pushing myself harder than I've ever trained before."
'I have to figure out what makes me happy'
As an athlete, Blair realizes the importance of sleep, though it is the first thing to be sacrificed due the demands of his major and chemistry minor.
While he expects the course load to be easier than the fall, that rest may be limited again during the spring semester. More than halfway through his Albion career, Blair is at the point where he needs to make decisions about his career because he doesn't want to take a gap year. A visit to a sea life center during a tour of Alaska last summer has him considering a career in marine biology or he could opt for medical school. If he is serious about pursuing medical school, a chunk of his time outside the pool and dry land workouts in the lead up to the MIAA Championships will be devoted to preparing for the Medical College Admission Test.
"Swimming makes me very happy. If I'm stressed out about a class it's the perfect thing to get my mind off (the academic demands)," Blair said. "It is scary looking ahead and knowing there is only one more year left of this.
"It would be nice to focus on my academic or athletic commitments separately, but I'm here to be a student first and then an athlete. It's about incorporating my academic and swimming goals into one," Blair added. "Winter break is a time to sit down and think about what I want to do."
And, just like he has Melpolder as a model for what he would like to accomplish in the pool, Blair has learned from a teammate who achieved all-MIAA status as a league champion on how to navigate the academic waters.
"We've had swimmers take the MCAT," Blair said with confidence. "Julie Okorn, '14, (the 2013 MIAA champion in the 200 butterfly and 400 individual medley who will start the M.D. program at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine in August) was one of the hardest, if not the hardest workers I've ever seen – both in the classroom and in the pool. Seeing how much she studied for everything and the way she set her goals, that's the type of person I want to be like."