Samantha Blair is Vail Daily’s Best Fall Season Athlete
For Samantha Blair, living by the adage: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” is foundational to all aspects of life. “If you don’t do everything with 110% effort, then is it even worth doing?” she rhetorically asked in an email earlier this week. The proverb is multifaceted in her case. Of course, there is the sheer athletic range encompassing the running component of her “doing.” Capable of 46-seconds in the 300 hurdles — an event coach Charlie Janssen says she “seldom practices” — and 17:09 cross-country 5Ks, plus qualifying for Junior World Mountain Trail championships (twice, to be precise), Blair is a once in a generation talent. More poignant, however, is her desire for excellence to permeate her character and saturate those aspects of life not seen by a camera, honored with a trophy or recorded by a stopwatch.
“Samantha’s sportsmanship is really amazing,” her dad Steve glowingly articulated over the phone last week.
“After every race, she stays at the finish line — it doesn’t matter if she finishes fifth or first — she’ll stay at the finish line and give everybody high fives. That’s always fun to watch,” her mom, a 2021 Leadville 100 trail run finisher and 2012 USATF Colorado 25k trail champion, echoed.
It’s a trait she picked up on individually, but a blessing felt corporately. If there is something unanimously ascribed to Blair — by coaches, opponents and family — it is that she is both tenaciously competitive and genuinely kind. Her gifts are less about pure speed — which she possesses — and more about indomitable resilience, unquenchable intrinsic motivation and timeless class. To say it another way: she is what we sportswriters would call an all-timer.
While this journalist has only been lucky enough to cover Blair’s exploit’s for half of a season, this valley has been the recipient of a sterling childhood sensation for the past half-decade; more if you count all those middle school titles. Still, I’ve followed sports long enough to know when success deserves recognition, and thus, Samantha Blair is deservingly the Vail Daily Fall Prep Athlete of the Year.
To listen to someone describe Blair requires about as much verbose versatility as her Swiss Army knife-like talent. “Relentless, gritty, kind and a jokester,” said Eagle Valley head coach Melinda Brandt when asked to describe her star pupil. “I would describe my sister as hard-working, fun-loving, and adventurous,” said older sister Joslin, the 2018 World Mountain Running Association U18 World Champion and current NCAA Division I athlete at Vanderbilt. Even coaches who compete against Blair describe her versatility — the ability to go from star to sideline supporter — in a similar vein.
“Sam Blair has been incredible to watch over the years. Her combination of tenacious and fierce competition, with genuine kindness and care for others is one that I haven’t seen much in my coaching career. She pulls off both sides incredibly well,” wrote Battle Mountain coach Rob Parish.
Of course, as experienced as Parish is with the finer points of running talent, it’s hard for the Husky coach to stop without gushing over the nuts and bolts of her athletic prowess, too. “She also seems to have just about every event and distance in her bag,” he continued. “Her versatility is amazing. I often say to our coaches and athletes that ‘the usual rules of fatigue don’t apply to Sam, or her sister for that matter.'”
Parish figured that out over several seasons of competing against the two. Janssen learned it on day one.
“They’re going to be pretty dangerous.”
Charlie Janssen’s first encounter with Samantha Blair was in May of 2016, after the conclusion of the track season. Myriah Blair had brought her eighth and sixth grade daughters, Joslin and Sam, to the track to meet their future high school coach. She figured they would need to get acquainted eventually. What better way than having Janssen run them through a tune-up for an upcoming Hershey track meet in Pennsylvania?
“I was like, ‘well, these are middle school girls that I’m meeting for the first time,” Janssen recalled thinking that day. ”But they’re Myriah Blair’s kids — I bet I can put them through the wringer. Let’s see how they hang.”
After 10×200 meters in 32-34 seconds-a-pop, which left both athletes bent over heaving for their lives, and still hungry for more, Janssen’s admiration for their efforts quickly metamorphosed into salivation surrounding their potentials. “I was just like, ‘man, they’re going to be pretty dangerous,” Janssen said.
Ironically, the girls didn’t end up going to the meet because of a scheduling conflict. “So they just went through this really painful workout, just for fun,” Janssen said. “That was literally the very first day I had ever met them.” In some ways, the latter anecdote paints a clearer picture than the former: Blair is someone who exudes passionate rigor and practices unfettered resilience for the sheer joy of the chase.
Two years later, Joslin was a state champion in the 1600 meters. That fall, Sam improved upon her 12th place finish at the Middle School State cross-country championships, finishing in sixth. The next year, she won the whole thing, coming from behind and passing four girls in the final 400 meters. The gritty, into the wind comeback sprint would become somewhat of a trademark.
Joslin remembered one track race in elementary school in particular. “She dove across the line to win the race. I feel like it is that same spirit that has made her so successful throughout her high school career,” the elder sister wrote.
One of her diving moments even roped in another local prep endurance star. At the two-mile middle school home cross country invite, Blair caught and out-leaned Sullivan Middaugh to claim the overall win. As someone who raced in the same middle school races as Fargo’s Laura Roesler, the most decorated Oregon Duck in history and a 22-time state champion running 53-second 400s and 2:03 800s as an eighth grader, I felt uniquely positioned to ask Sullivan if he was disappointed in losing to a girl or simply honored to have raced such a precocious talent. “A little bit of both,” he laughed, vividly recalling the moment with perhaps a slight, innocently competitive doubt as to exactly who out-leaned who.
In her final Colorado state meet, she dug deep again, making up a substantial gap on Niwot star Mia Prok in the final 500 meters, nipping her at the line.
“State this year was an excellent display of her grit to fight til the end,” said Melinda Brandt, who is the head coach at Eagle Valley (Janssen is the assistant as well as the distance track coach). The moment is one of Blair’s parents’ proudest. “Just the grit there, to run her down and finish how she did and not give up — that’s pretty amazing,” Myriah said.
While the Blairs have running in their blood, the parents weren’t the type to force their kids into doing mile repeats after watching Nickelodeon.
Rather, they believed allowing their kids to chart their own athletic journey would ensure an authentic passion and ultimately, the best results. “Yeah, I think that philosophy has been good for us — to kind of let them explore things,” Steve, a former decathlete at Northern Colorado, said. “From my perspective, if a kid is not passionate about something, they’re probably not going to be that successful at it.”
Sam did hockey, soccer, basketball, tennis and skiing before honing in on running. Growing up, Blair tracked her fit and competitive parents and older sister up 14ers and across the Grand Canyon. Chasing Joslin was something she — and her coaches — believe had a huge impact on her development.
“She came in her freshmen year — she was just an absurd competitor,” said Janssen, who went on to explain he felt much of that toughness came from striving to keep up with Joslin. Competere — the Latin root for competition — means to strive together, and the sister act embodied it perfectly, according to the younger. “Sure, it definitely motivated me because I wanted to be as fast or faster than her,” she said. “Just some good old sibling rivalry.”
A rivalry well cherished.
“Growing up with my sister was so much fun. I had a built-in best friend and training partner,” Samantha said.
“My sister not only taught me but showed me the power of hard work and determination. She has always been someone that I look up to, and one of my biggest idols. Whenever we raced together, she pushed me as hard as I could go every step of the way.”
Even though she has a knack for coming from behind in races, the narrative seems unlikely as a broader theme for Blair’s life. But, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In overcoming disappointments, Brandt believes a better theme might be “Relentless.” In eighth grade, she suffered a spiral femur fracture playing soccer in gym class, an injury that Janssen said was inches from being career-threatening. Entering her senior campaign, Brandt said of the six races contested, only three of them went as planned.
“Most people think her journey has been a perfect upward trajectory of success, but there have been many bumps along the way,” she said.
Even when things aren’t perfect and expectations are heavy, Blair has the ability to shoulder it while simultaneously leading her teammates and being an exemplary role model. The unique blend of kindness and responsibility even permeates across to the boys’ team.
“She is great at pulling her own weight when the team is down, didn’t have a good race, or is scared going into a race,” said Jake Drever, the fastest runner on the Eagle Valley boy’s team. Drever and Blair are headed to the Running Lane Nationals on Dec. 4, which will feature the fastest runners in the country. Drever knows that the loaded field won’t shake his teammate. “When she sees competition, she knows she’s ready to race.”
Behind the fearless exterior is a person who is genuine and relational. More extroverted than introverted, according to her parents, her sister described her by saying, “Everyone knows her — loves her.” It is no surprise that she connects with the Drever’s up front and those at the back of the pack, too.
“She is kind and caring to her teammates, something that is sometimes lacking in elite athletes at the younger level,” Brandt said.
At the scholastic level, the casual fan knows Samantha Blair is fast. The astute endurance follower, however, sees untapped potential in a wide variety of events. Her parents think eventually the mountains might be her final landing spot. In recalling her experience at the Mountain Running World Championships in Argentina in 2019, Steve said, “That was pretty darn adventurous, and Sam definitely thrives in that atmosphere for sure — the gnarlier the better.” It might run in her genes, too. Myriah nearly made the U.S. senior national mountain team in 2011.
For the analytical Janssen, who can spout off everything from splits during a random mid-April workout in 2017 to the laundry list of accolades his pupil has achieved going back to seventh grade, the steeplechase presents a wild frontier. “She’s nasty. Her form is amazing,” he excitedly affirmed. “2k (high school distance for the event; it moves up to 3k at the collegiate and international levels) steeple — she would demolish people.”
The enterprising coach built a steeple barrier and had Blair practicing water jumps into a sand pit last spring, hoping to land in a post-season race. Unfortunately, Blair was never given the chance to compete in the rarely contested — at the prep level — event.
Nonetheless, the combination of hurdle form, explosive speed, cross-country strength and the mountain endurance/adventurous attribute which so often characterizes the world’s best steeplers (3-time NCAA champion Allie Ostrander and former University of Utah runner Grayson Murphy, a World Trail champion, come to mind off the bat), seems evidence enough that Blair is in line to enter the pantheon of great Colorado-born steeple chasers, from Jenny Simpson to Emma Coburn to the valley’s own Val Constien.
“I think she has a massive reservoir of untapped potential in the steeplechase. I think she would make an excellent 1,500 runner, but she’s also going to be pretty nasty running a 6K, too,” Janssen predicted, the range of ability forcing him to strain to find the right event for the future Northern Arizona student-athlete.
The opportunity to foster her running at a reputable school and also experiment with different events is something everyone on Team Blair is excited about. She received offers from Boston University, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Cal-Berkeley, Northern Arizona and Syracuse, among others.
“Ultimately I wanted her to be the governor of her choice,” Janssen stated when asked if he offered any opinions to the young student-athlete. Ultimately, Janssen believes it came down to the commitment of the NAU coaches and the unity, culture and competitiveness of the team. “I was definitely on board with the NAU decision.”
Striving for success in all aspects
Wherever Blair ends up taking her running, expect her to compete, be tough and have fun. And … probably be winning. For Blair, however, running transcends victories. “My purpose in running is to challenge myself to be the best that I can be while enjoying the sport and community it creates,” she said.
Affectionate devotion is something Blair said Janssen has taught the team to apply to their pursuits. “If you’re passionate about what you do, then you will never work a day of your life,” she said about his lesson, noting that Janssen himself is the best example.
Two other lessons that Janssen has rubbed off on the young athlete seem appropriate to conclude with.
“Stay true to yourself and embrace who you are,” she wrote in listing her coach’s advice. “Finally, he taught me that the challenges and hardships that we face every day don’t define us. It’s how we deal with and react to these hardships that shape us into the person we are. Each and every day, Janssen has pushed me to be my best in every single aspect of my life.”
It’s hard to imagine trying to “one-up“ the scholastic accomplishments of Samantha Blair. Yet, her words offer wisdom for us all. The second-grader nervously pondering the decision to someday join track because she admired Sammy Blair’s photo in the paper; the master athlete discouraged over another injury or personal worst; even Blair herself should heed her own advice. It isn’t about out-doing. If anything, it’s about out-leaning … breaking the tape in front of the previously known best version of yourself. It’s about being the best you can be at every aspect of life.
“It’s been great to watch her career, and often when she is way out in front of our group, I find myself cheering for her loudly!” said Parish about the longtime Husky nemesis. Whether it’s gunning down Courtney Dauwalter at the next Leadville 100 or lining up with Val Constien at the 2024 Olympic Steeplechase trials — or both — we’ll be cheering, too.