Athens Academy senior Graham Blanks couldn’t have seen his now even longer list of accomplishments coming two years ago.
On Saturday, Blanks officially qualified for the national championship with his win at Southeast Regional in the qualifying portion of the Nike Cross Country Nationals. Blanks ran a time of 14 minutes and 57 seconds on the same course he won The Great Cross-Country Festival on and set his personal record earlier this year.
Blanks has had his sights set on winning the regional since the start of the 2019 season.
“It was in the back of my mind since the beginning of the season to try and win the regional meet,” Blanks said. “Just having an opportunity to go to the national championship is huge for me. I’m just excited to go out there and put all my chips on the table and see what I can do.”
Now that he’s qualified, Blanks sets his sights on being one of the first runners from Georgia to be crowned national champion. Winning the national title would be the punctuation on a high school career Blanks admits he would still have a difficult time believing should he come across the finish line first on Saturday.
“It would be kind of insane,” Blanks said. “It would be incredible to win. After I finished I’d have to question if this was real life or not. I’d have to pinch myself.”
Blanks’ journey to Portland, Oregon and the Cross-Country National Championship began with him looking in the mirror and seeing his shortcomings.
Blanks doesn’t possess the most imposing physique. He isn’t particularly tall. Yet, in spite of his physical slights, Blanks wanted to play a sport at the college level. Blanks thought that sport would be soccer. He’d played mid field and wing for much of his life on the pitch.
“I always wanted to keep competing at the next level,” Blanks said. “I loved being an athlete. As sophomore season came I started noticing that I was a little shorter than everyone and I wasn’t as strong.”
Blanks ended his soccer career during his sophomore year of high school to focus full-time on running after finishing in eighth-place in Class A Private during his freshman season. Blanks has won the last two Class A Private state championship race and is heading to Harvard University to run cross-country and track upon his graduation.
“I haven’t really looked back yet,” Blanks said. “I definitely think I made the right decision. Who knows what would have happened if I’d stuck with soccer?”
Even as the accolades have piled up the last few years, Blanks still wasn’t expecting to reach Portland when he dove into the sport fully. His supporting cast made things that once seemed far away, seem attainable.
Former Athens Academy runner Anna Marian Block has been a mentor for Blanks in recent years. The state-title winning duo ran as teammates for two years and text on a regular basis. Blanks still run with Block occasionally.
Block has helped fuel Blanks’ competitive hunger while another former teammate and close friend Ryan Iyer has helped Blanks strive for academic success.
Iyer attends Columbia. For Blanks, seeing his friend balance athletics and his education well enough to earn acceptance into an Ivy League school only pushed Blanks harder in the classroom.
Blanks feels his environment made his journey to Portland much easier.
“Just seeing those two people do such great things just inspired me,” Blanks said. “They say you’re the average of the five people that you surround yourself with. That adds up when you look at Anna Marian (Block) and you look at Ryan (Iyer). I feel like I’m in a place where I’m setting myself up to be as best as I can be athletically and academically. I don’t think I would be looking at the types of schools I was looking at if it wasn’t for Ryan. I don’t think I would be as successful or as driven athletically if I’d never met Anna Marian. She showed me what you can do if you work hard.”