Lydia Blair-James

J.I. Burton's Lydia Blair-James. 

J.I. Burton doesn’t have a track on campus, just a small bit of pavement that was once used for driver’s education on the Norton campus.

That hasn’t kept Lydia Blair-James from making an impact, and Raiders’ sixth-year track coach Donnie Potter felt this spring would have been her best state meet yet.

“ I felt like she had a good shot to win the 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles and the high jump,” Potter said.

She was certainly ready to give it a try.

“Possibly yes,” said Blair-James, who won the 100 hurdles two years in a row, and added the 300 hurdles title last spring. She was also second in the high jump and was part of a relay team that helped the Raiders to a seventh place team finish among Class 1A schools. “I have to work on [my technique] a lot, but other than that, I think I could do it…I wanted to keep my state title.”

Blair-James didn’t always believe in her abilities. Potter did.

“ Lydia did not see or believe the athlete that she was. I told her many times if you could see what I see you would be unstoppable. That is what I used to tell her in the early days,” Potter said. “When I decided that she should run hurdles she wasn’t real crazy about that at first. I was like I am telling you I just know you can do this.”

She didn’t believe it at first.

“ [It took] a while, a long time,” she said. “My freshman year I didn’t think I would ever do them again because I was so bad at them.”

Not anymore. She has become one of the state’s best at the hurdles. She especially likes the 100 hurdles, enjoys the triple jump, and has been part of all Burton relay teams in the past.

“ For the 300 I get out of breath too quick so I like the 100 better,” said the 5-foot-6 Blair-James. “Where my legs are long I just have to stretch and not run that much so it makes me faster.”

Her athletic ability showed in the Class 1 state meet last spring at East Rockingham High School in Elkton, Va. She had won the 100 meter title as a sophomore so she knew success could be had.

“ I loved that last year at the state meet she wore her state ring,” Potter said. “I did ask her what made [her] do that. She just felt like she needed to remind herself that ‘I am a state champion, I can do this.’ ”

Blair-James did just fine and was poised for big senior campaign, having participated in indoor track and had continued to progress in early spring when everything came to a screeching halt.

“ She was working really hard…,” Potter said. “She had something to prove I guess. That is a lot of pressure when you are a defending state champion your sophomore and junior year.”

Instead, the coronavirus caused not only schools to close, but sports were canceled, taking Blair-James’ final season away from her. Track was over and school had to be done through virtual options.

“ It took a while to get used to, but I take a lot of online classes so it wasn’t that big of a deal to me,” said Blair-James, who will take part in an outdoor graduation ceremony on June 13 at the Raiders’ football stadium. “Not seeing my friends and running track and stuff, that was hard.”

Potter understood just how disappointed she was.

“ She was, and she is the one I worried about the most. Out of all the years I have coached her, this was definitely the hardest I have seen her go,” she said. “We don’t have a track at Norton so we would go down to Big Stone and practice [in March]. Instead of running her with the girls I was running her with the boys and she was holding on.

“ She always works hard, but I was seeing something I hadn’t seen the past three or four years.”

Blair-James credits Potter for building a belief in herself.

“ She pushes me the hardest because I think she sees potential in me,” she said. “That helped me a lot because most coaches if you don’t do something right they just get mad, but she will keep pushing you.”

Name a girls sport at J.I. Burton and she has been part of it, from volleyball, basketball, cheerleading and cross country, but track seemed to be her natural place.

“ She came out her ninth grade year,” Potter said. “We have spent a lot of time together so we have definitely gotten close over the years. She is a great kid.”

Potter saw potential in her, even getting her own talented daughter, Kacie Culbertson, to work with Blair-James on the skills that it takes to combine speed and the fearless ability to leap over hurdles that are literally waiting to be an obstacle to success.

“ Lydia just has it. I push her really hard,” Potter said. “She is very quiet. When you meet her you don’t see it, you wouldn’t know. She doesn’t talk a whole lot, she is very quiet, but her athletic ability is a just a God-given amazing talent that she has.”

Being pushed isn’t a problem for Blair-James. She responds by just getting better.

“ Sometimes you have kids that don’t want to work and complain about not wanting to come to practice because I am very strict about being at practice,” Potter said. “If you miss so many I am just not fooling with it. They know how I feel about it and she definitely won’t miss practice.

“ She looks forward to it and she is there every single practice. She is just great and always working hard and she knows I am not going to settle for any less than her very best…

“ There is really nothing honestly that she cannot do, and well.”

Blair-James, who spends any extra time taking care of her grandmother, plans to work toward a biochemistry degree at Radford in the fall, with plans to become a pharmaceutical scientist. She is still considering whether to participate in track.

That decision remains, but she certainly has missed track this spring.

“ Too much,” she said. “It is different. I don’t know how to explain it. It just became part of my routine and now it is just gone.”

Potter will definitely miss having Blair-James competing for the Raiders next spring, but her prized pupil has offered to help out since Potter is the only coach for boys and girls varsity and middle school track in Norton.

“ I really have to depend on the older kids to help out the younger kids,” Potter said. “When it is time to do hurdle practice, she takes the kids over and she does the hurdles with them. She has really helped me a lot. She has even asked me if she could come back and help me coach. I would love that.”

bwoodson@bristolnews.com | Twitter: BHCWoodson | (276) 645-2543

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