For nearly two decades, David Blair has been sitting behind a desk in Eagle Mountain, Utah, working as a database administrator and programmer, his track and field career a distant memory.
That is, until last year, when the former Weber State athlete discovered he was Paralympic eligible. After 16 years away from the sport, he picked up a discus to find he “had a little snap left,” and threw a whopping 54.25 meters at his first meet back, good enough for fourth in the world at the time.
“When the opportunity presented itself now that I was at a different point in my life, my family was excited about it, and I thought it may be fun to try it again,” said Blair, 40, who was born with clubfoot. “Being able to throw that far in my first two-week period of training, I thought maybe it was worth trying to see what I could do with it.”
Six months later, Blair earned a silver medal at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and in May he smashed the F44 discus world record with a phenomenal throw of 63.61 meters at an IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Mesa, Arizona.
The timing couldn’t have been any better, just two months before the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials.
And the message to two-time Paralympic champion Jeremy Campbell was clear.
Campbell has had a stronghold on the F44 discus class in the United States for the last decade, and internationally he has won the last two Paralympic Games and world championships. It was his previous world-record throw that Blair broke last month by 15 centimeters.
“I was there when he broke it and gave him a big hug,” Campbell said. “I wasn’t surprised at all. If anyone were to break it, I’m glad it was him.
“That’s what records are meant to be there for, to get broken and then get re-broken. That’s why I’ve found that in my career it’s easy to become No. 1, but it’s much more difficult to stay No. 1.”
Notice the 28-year-old Texan said “re-broken,” too.
Campbell, an amputee in his 10th season with the U.S. national team, is coming off a season-best throw of 61.29 meters at an IPC Athletics Grand Prix competition that also served as the Rio 2016 Paralympic test event.
He’s just hitting his stride in a sport which athletes are known to peak at around age 30.
“I’m completely confident where my training’s at, hitting these next few weeks going into the trials,” Campbell said. “This is going to be the most challenging Paralympic Games for me. The more people who are throwing far like that, the more it means the sport’s growing. It would be really cool to see two Americans on that podium.”
Heading into this Paralympic summer, Team USA has the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked F44 discus throwers in Blair and Campbell, with Great Britain’s four-time Paralympic medalist Dan Greaves and Trinidad and Tobago’s first Parapan champion Akeem Stewart expected to give the American pair a run for their money.
“This is groundbreaking for U.S. Paralympics,” Campbell said. “Rio’s going to be big, and I expect nothing less. I think by the time it comes, everything’s going to be ready to rock and roll.”
Campbell is accustomed to the international pressures in the ring, but for Blair, the 1993 state discus champion in Utah, it’s still all new and overwhelming.
When he graduated college, Blair was just five meters short of where he needed to be to compete alongside able-bodied athletes at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, and he was one of seven athletes nationwide invited to attend a camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
But because he had already had a wife and child, and the arthritis in his foot wasn’t getting better, he decided to call it quits.
The motions of throwing are like second nature to Blair, which is why his return to the ring has looked so graceful, but coming back hasn’t been so easy.
In fact, his second time back in the ring, Blair landed flat on his back while trying to throw the disc, his head colliding with the ground.
“The muscle memory was there, but it was shaky coming back,” Blair said. “The biggest thing has been trying to figure out how to fit the training into my schedule, as I work full-time, have a family that I come home to and do volunteer work with the scouts.”
Blair switched up his training regimen after last year’s world championships, where he pulled a pectoral muscle. His recent focus has been in the weight room — a place Campbell has made him look weak in.
“He’s a lot younger than I am, and a lot stronger than I am, too,” Blair said.
Blair, born with a club foot, isn’t able to recover as quickly between workouts as when he was younger, so it takes him a lot more time in the gym than his opponents.
“Remember, you’re 40,” Blair’s coach constantly reminds him. “You’re looking to be strong enough, but not Superman here in the weight room.”
Both Blair and Campbell are doing everything in training they can to better the other prior to the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 30, from throwing traffic cones to setting new benchmarks in the weight room.
It’s a constant back-and-forth of one eclipsing the other, their throws within just centimeters of each other.
And to think, summer’s just beginning.
“I felt very blessed to be able to throw far enough to break his world record, but I feel like we’re not done yet,” Blair said.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.