February 13, 2014
Sprinting to the Top: Bianca Blair
By Lauryn Lax
The former collegiate runner finds a new sport in CrossFit.
The former collegiate runner finds a new sport in CrossFit.

"I wasn't a slim, petite or graceful kid. I was thick with big thighs, broad shoulders and an aggressive, high-energy attitude." 

Photos courtesy of Louise of Mazzalou photography. 

Bianca Blair knows when she’s training someone out there is training just as hard, if not harder. Year after year, dark horses emerge into the competitive arena.

Blair, 24, hopes to be just that.

She trains at Real Fitness Sarasota CrossFit and has been doing CrossFit for six months, but she has lifts that match or exceed many experienced athletes. She insists her impressive strength “just comes naturally.”

Last October, just four months into CrossFit, she tested her 1-rep max in several lifts. She back squatted 310 lb.; front squatted 260 lb.; power cleaned 200 lb.; jerked 200 lb.; and snatched 135 lb. In the same month, she tested Grace (1:39), Helen (7:29) and her 400-m run (00:54.60).

Blair has been an athlete since she was young. She’s “done it all”—dance, soccer, gymnastics, basketball and track—and she loves competing.

Since she’s so powerful, few would guess her first sport was ballet.

“That did not last too long,” Blair said. “My parents say (during) my first ballet recital, I shook all the mirrors on the wall when I pranced across the floor. I wasn't a slim, petite or graceful kid. I was thick with big thighs, broad shoulders and an aggressive, high-energy attitude. I was more into climbing trees, riding bikes and racing my cousins down the street.”

After the short stint in the ballet studio, Blair found track and fell in love. She ran competitively starting as a kindergartener and ranked in the top five in the U.S. as a high school hurdler. Blair holds many high school achievements, including personal state titles in 2006 and 2007 in the 100-m and 300-m hurdles. She set personal records of 7.94 in the 55-m hurdles, 8.53 in the 60-m hurdles and 60.03 in the 400-m hurdles.

She also took fourth place at the Nike Indoor National Championships in the 60-m hurdle events and was named a “High School Indoor All-American.”

Blair became a collegiate track star at three different universities on full athletic scholarships, including the University of South Carolina her freshman year, Texas A&M for her sophomore year and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville during her last two years. She consistently improved her track records.

Some of her notable performances include 13.35 on the 100-m hurdles; 1:00.10 on the 400-m hurdles; 41.97 on the 300-m hurdles; 41.97 on the 55-m hurdles; 8.49 on the 60-m hurdles; and 53.9 on the 400-m dash split. She went on to earn the title as a SEC-ranked hurdler during her junior year at UT, where she finished seventh in the 400-m hurdles with a time of 1:01:27.

While it may seem like everything athletic has come easy to Blair, that’s not the case. An eating disorder coupled with depression limited her performance on the track when she was in college.

In 2008, her freshman year, Blair suffered from bulimia.

“I was running two seconds slower than I had in high school, and I had an identity crisis,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was outside of track, and I was in a place where I felt pretty alone.”

She sought help and decided to make a change.

“I decided to transfer schools to Texas A&M, thinking the change would help me,” Blair said. “Initially, it was a great decision. My eating disorder was under control and I had a fresh start. However, I quit some medication the doctor had given me for depression cold turkey, but I quickly relapsed back into it and the eating disorder. Soon, bad performance with track came back (and) horrible body image. I stopped going to church and isolated myself from friends. I was crying every night. I just wanted to disappear.”

She took time off of school, and returned to Knoxville to focus on recovering from bulimia and depression.

“It was a struggle, but I took responsibility for myself (and) stopped blaming my surroundings and circumstances,” she said.  The challenge was figuring out “who Bianca was without track,” she said.

“I was happy, healthy and stable. The only thing that bothered me is that I quit track. I had never quit anything in my life,” she said.

When she decided she was ready to return to track after two years off, she walked on to the track team at the UT and earned a scholarship.

“It was tough getting back into shape after nearly two years off, but I was determined,” she said.

This time, Blair was able to compete without relapsing. After graduating as a sixth-season senior in May 2013, Blair knew she needed an outlet for her competitive energy.

Enter CrossFit.

Weight training and CrossFit first blipped onto her radar the year before when her older brother, Jeffery, texted a link to a CrossFit video.

“He thought I would be pretty good … I completely blew him off at first, and it wasn’t until my final year of college when I realized track was coming to an end, and I needed something to fill that void,” Blair said.

“I started watching a lot of CrossFit videos on YouTube, started learning who the top girls were, and began to research and email the gyms in my area,” she continued.

“I became obsessed. Before my season was over, all I talked about was how I was finally going to give CrossFit a try.”

On June 10, 2013, the day after her last track meet, she walked into CrossFit Ktown and did Fran.

Seven minutes and 12 seconds later, Blair knew she had found the perfect challenge.

“That is until I Googled other (CrossFit athletes’) Fran times,” she said.

She realized being successful in CrossFit competition “was going to be hard. This was something I was going to have to work at,” she said.

And she has been working hard ever since.

In her short time with CrossFit she has jumped into several local competitions. She qualified for a spot in the elite division at Wodapalooza, which was held in late January. There she held her own, finishing 22nd among many of the big names in CrossFit, including reigning champion Sam Briggs and Games competitors Talayna Fortunato and Emily Friedman.

“I even swam!” Blair said. “During Wodapalooza, there was an ocean swim as part of the mini-triathlon, and I am terrified of sharks … so I freaked out … It was scary and not fun, but I did it, and I am so proud of myself for that. Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it.”

Now, Blair is ready to do whatever it takes to make it to the South East Regional.

She recently moved from Tennessee to Bradenton, Fla., to be near her fiancé, Demetrius Pinder. Pinder took gold in the 4 x 400 relay at the London Olympics in 2012.

“(My fiancé) helps me continue with my track workouts, and he even does some of them with me,” Blair said.

Sloane Sapan, the 35th-place finisher at the 2013 South East Regional, has taken over as Blair’s coach. A typical day of training includes skill work, strength training and metabolic conditioning.

The skill work is usually an every-minute-on-the-minute of a gymnastics movement like the muscle-up or handstand push-up, but occasionally Sapan has Blair work on her snatch.

“I am just not quite comfortable with a lot of weight above my head, and I do not have the technique down for snatches yet,” Blair said.

After that, she works on her heavy lifting following the Outlaw Way.

Depending on the day, she may return to the box for another workout.

“I do a lot of things outside the gym, such as track workouts to help my engine,” she said. “I do a lot of sprint workouts such as short, fast interval training with short rests. This is different from running steady-paced miles. By doing these sprint workouts, I am training the same energy system that I use when I am doing those high-paced, high-intensity (workouts).”

Her goal is a top-10 finish at the South East Regional this year.

“Hard work, time, and patience are my key points each and every day in order to, one day, make it to the Games,” she said.