Highlands swimmer Blackburn pushes toward strong showings in postseason
By: Michael Love
Sunday, January 6, 2019 | 7:15 PM
When Rachel Blackburn began organized swimming almost a decade ago, she had a positive influence and support close to home.
Older brother Ben rose through the area club ranks, enjoyed a strong career at Highlands capped by two individual WPIAL medals as a senior in 2017 and now is a key performer for Allegheny.
“I’ve always looked up to him,” Rachel said. “When I first had the chance to get into swimming, we would pick him up from a practice, and I was like, ‘What is he doing? I want to do that, too.’ That’s how I started swimming.”
“(Ben) gives me tips all the time that he’s received from his (college) coaches. He always tells me that I can do anything I put my mind to and not to expect anything less than my best. He pushes me and supports me all the way. I draw a lot of inspiration from him.”
Rachel not only followed her brother into the sport itself but also has exceled in the same events. At his final WPIAL meet, Ben recorded eighth-place finishes in the 200-yard individual medley and 100 breaststroke.
Last year, Rachel scored an eighth in the Class AA 200 IM and took third in the 100 breast, capping her season in the latter by placing 13th at states. It was her first individual appearance at the PIAA championships after making the trip in a relay as a freshman.
“I could’ve done better and picked at the little things,” she said, “but overall, I am proud of the way I swam.”
Now, she is hoping to take it up a notch as a junior at WPIALs and at Bucknell.
Blackburn established WPIAL cuts in the 200 IM and 100 breast at Highlands’ Dec. 20 dual meet with Beaver Falls. She feels she is right on track to make her move in both events, and said increased offseason work with her Fox Chapel Killer Whales club team has helped her take that next step.
“(This season) feels different. I get a different vibe from it,” she said. “My muscles don’t hurt after a tough workout or practice.”
Along with many of the other top swimmers in the WPIAL, Blackburn was able to measure her progress in several events at the annual Christmas meet for club teams at Pitt’s Trees Pool.
“It pretty much gives you an idea of where you’re at and where you should be at, comparing it to times you swam last year. It shows you how fast you’re progressing,” she said. “Times are fast at the Christmas meet. Some kids swim all year round that may not swim high school. They are at their top level.”
While she has punched her ticket to WPIALs in her top events, Blackburn said she isn’t done trying to lower those qualifying times or shooting for qualifying cuts in other individual events.
“I try to qualify in as many as I can before I have to decide which ones I want to swim, so I have a bigger option range,” she said. “But I know I will swim the 100 breast, and it would be hard to go away from the 200 IM because it’s my second-best event. It would be a challenge to transition down to a 50 free or 100 free. In the 50, I would have to get my sprinting down and my breathing down. It’s a whole different training method.”
Blackburn also is excited about opportunities in the relays. She was a part of the 200 medley relay that placed 13th at last year’s WPIAL meet. She returns to the event with sophomore Suzie Kunst and welcomes senior Melissa Boyer and freshman Abby Watts.
The team qualified for WPIALs against Beaver Falls.
“I think the relay is coming together well,” Blackburn said. “We can go faster, and we will. We’re all working really hard with it to have better starts and to get our turns down.”
First-year Highlands coach Becca Bowman said she appreciates Blackburn’s talent but also respects her ability as a leader in and out of the pool.
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at email@example.com or via Twitter @MLove_Trib.