By John Gay
It is a muggy Wednesday evening after another hard, two and a half hour, session of training with his teammates as part of the Kelowna based Okanagan Athletics Club, and 19-year-old Jerome Blake is putting the finishing touches on his cool down routine.
His work for the day finally finished, Blake makes his way towards the exit of the Kelowna Apple Bowl, stopping frequently to chat up teammates, coaches, and the parents of athletes arriving to bring their charges home.
Laughing and joking around, Blake’s antics seem to belie the rigorous training regimen he is subject to on a daily basis; yet while off the track he is perhaps most distinguishable for his easy going nature, on it he is a picture of intensity and focus.
This was not always the case however, and over the past two years, the young man originally hailing from Jamaica has undergone a transformation of sorts. A self-described “troublemaker” with no real sense of where he was heading or what he wanted to do with his life, Blake arrived in Canada with his mother and brother in the summer of 2013 with the intentions of staying for just a few months.
Fate and the keen eye of a coach proved to have different plans however, and while supervising his younger brother playing soccer on the infield of the local track, Jerome decided to test out his speed with a few intervals around the oval.
Running all alone and barefoot, it didn’t take long for OAC head coach Pat Sima-Ledding to pick out Blake’s loping figure as she arrived at the Apple Bowl to start making preparations for that night’s club practice. Following his run, the two got talking.
“I asked her if she was a track and field athlete herself and she told me she was a coach with the local club,” says Blake. “I told her that back in Jamaica I had been a 400m hurdler and she looked at me and was like ‘no way, from now on you’re going to be a sprinter.”
“As far as technique goes, Jerome was way off,” says Sima-Ledding, “but on very little technical work and absolutely no training the natural talent was there. I knew, that with guidance and some technical cleanup he had the potential to run some really fast times.”
Sima-Ledding invited Jerome out to the next OAC practice and two weeks later he found himself in Kamloops ready to enter the blocks for the BC Athletics annual Track and Field Jamboree.
“I ended up coming almost last in all of my heats for the 100m, 200m, and 400m, and ran 11.52 or something for (the 100 meters)” confesses Blake, “and I left that weekend telling myself that was it, I was done with track and field for good.”
Nevertheless, after stepping back from the sport for some time, the encouragement he received from Sima-Ledding and others led him back to the track that winter, ready to work hard and drop his times.
“During those early stages of base work it can be really difficult for the athletes,” Sima-Ledding says, “it’s a lot of repetition, a lot of very dry, boring work, and whether or not [the athletes] make it through really comes down to their character and willingness to work hard. In order to push through that difficult training there has to be a passion for the sport. That passion cannot be trained but with Jerome, it is absolutely there.”
Sure enough, Blake made it through that first winter of training and entered his first full season of outdoor competition (2014) eager to see what he could do. A senior at Rutland Senior Secondary, he quickly made a name for himself on the high school circuit, easily going undefeated through a series of local and regional level competitions.
In his first electronically timed race of the year, the Kamloops Centennial meet in May, Blake ran away with a winning time of 11.00, just shy of the elusive 11 second barrier.
“At that point Pat said to me ‘once you break 11 seconds there’s no going back,’ and that’s when I really started to think that I could do something special.”
His opportunity to push past that point of no return would come later that month at the B.C. high school provincial championships in Langley.
Everything “clicked into place” for Blake as he blew away the provinces best prep athletes en route to a double gold medal showing with personal best performances of 10.73 and 22.34 in the 100m and 200m respectively.
With those results, Blake earned himself a spot on the provincial team and was given the opportunity to represent BC for the first time at the Canadian Junior track and field championships in St. Thérèse, Que., where he was able to qualify for finals in both of those events against a deeper and more talented field than he had ever encountered.
The following weekend, Blake returned to the site of his first race the year before, the BC Championship Jamboree. Running well over a second faster in the 100m than his showing in the event in 2013, Blake erased all the doubts in his ability that had plagued him the year before and cemented himself as the province’s most dominant sprinter.
Despite the wild successes of his 2014 season, Sima-Ledding knew the real test for Jerome would have to wait until 2015, when he would move from the junior age category into the realm of senior athletics.
Another winter of heavy training and come the spring of 2015 Blake was primed for another standout season.
No longer in high school, races in the early months of spring were fewer and further between for Blake, and so the first real test of fitness would come at the Kamloops Centennial meet; the scene of so many of his past accomplishments.
Going into the race, Sima-Ledding was confident that her athlete could post a fairly quick time despite the cool conditions and lack of competition. However, even her own expectations for Blake were blown away when he exploded out of the blocks to run a blisteringly fast time of 10.41.
Then on June 5 at the B.C. Post Secondary Showcase, Blake clipped another .05 seconds off his PB with a run of 10.36, the 12th fastest time by a Canadian man this year.
“I knew that (the times) would come and I had high aspirations for Jerome to be performing well at the national level later this season,” admitted Sima-Ledding, “but to run that fast, that early in the season took both of us by surprise, and from there the plans we had made kind of went out the window. The Kamloops Centennial meet was a ‘game changer’ for the future of Jerome’s career.”
When asked about what’s next from here, Blake is clear on his goals of competing on the world championship and Olympic stage.
His Canadian citizenship still in the processing stage, he is nevertheless unwavering in his aspirations to one day toe the line with the maple leaf of his adopted country on his chest. In the meantime, however, he says he just needs to stay focused on his training, stop worrying about the competitors in the lanes next to him, and enter every race confident in his ability.
“With the sky as the limit,” Jerome Blake has just “gotta keep (his) head out of the clouds.”