Illinois teacher to be Olympics referee
CARPENTERSVILLE (AP) — There is a part of Erin Blair that won't allow her to accept, at least completely, that her Olympic dream - all these years later - is actually coming true.
Ask the first-year fifth- and sixth-grade health teacher at Lakewood School in Carpentersville what the moment was like when her phone rang and the news arrived that she'd be traveling to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games in February as a women's hockey referee, and Blair struggles to come up with words.
Perhaps it's because of the enormity of the accomplishment. After working eight international tournaments, Blair will skate on women's hockey's biggest frozen stage. Maybe it's because after three years of learning she was even being considered for a spot on the officiating crew that will work the Sochi Games, she was selected as one of six referees and the only from the United States.
But considering this isn't the first time the 32-year-old Blair chased the Winter Olympics, the realization that she actually made it is still a little bit much to take in all at once.
"I don't even how to put it into words," Blair said Thursday, two days after she learned of her Olympic appointment. "I feel blessed. I feel like I've been given some great opportunities in the past, and this is the ultimate goal. This is what everybody that does what I do wants to do.
"It's kind of a feeling that I can't believe it's me."
As fulfilling of a feeling as that is, though, perhaps it means more because she understands what it's like to be on the other end. Blair, a former goalie at the University of Findlay (Ohio), had attended open tryouts for the U.S. National Team as a player. She never made the cut, leaving the Lisle native feeling disappointed and forcing her to move on from a goal of representing the U.S. in an Olympic games.
But when Blair started officiating just as a way to remain connected to hockey, the desire to make another Olympic team - as a referee - re-emerged, pushing Blair to put herself back on a track to reach the Winter Games. Over the course of her 13-year officiating career, Blair kept surging ahead, first in the minority as a female Division I hockey referee and then at the international level. With each step, she inched closer to making her Olympic debut.
Along the way, she never lost sight of her role on the ice.
"Whether I step on the ice for a Mites games with kids that are 6, 7 years old or I step on the ice for an international U.S. versus Canada game, it's the same concept of calling the game to the best of your ability," Blair said. "You see what you see and do the best that you can. You can't overthink it. Everybody's going to have nerves, but you have to step out there and say, 'This is my job.' "
Unlike her male counterparts who are career hockey officials - including Crystal Lake resident and NHL linesman Andy McElman, who also learned last week he will work the Sochi Games - Blair has had to balance her Olympic dreams with maintaining a career away from the ice.
After working with young athletes in the exercise science field, Blair changed direction four years ago, returning to school to pursue her teaching certificate. The career shift limited how much Blair could officiate, as she focused on a completely new direction in life. Yet, even in the chaos of reinventing herself with her career, she never allowed the Olympics to stray from her to-do list.
"It's like my two worlds were colliding," Blair said. "Yeah, I wanted (the Olympics), but it was a juggling act. But I was still able to accomplish both of my goals. I've become a teacher and I was selected to work the Olympics, and I think that made (the appointment) even more special."
The latter has given Blair a celebrity status at Lakewood that other first-year teachers don't often experience. She began the school year knowing she was on the short list for an Olympic appointment, allowing Blair to include her students on the journey to Sochi.
On a regular, if not daily, basis, they would ask if she had heard anything yet about the Olympics, picking up excitement as the selection date drew nearer. The smiles Blair sees from her kids has made the journey even more meaningful, understanding that even a refereeing job that sometimes seems like a sidelight to Blair's everyday job is having an impact on her students.
Blair recently served as a motivational speaker for Lakewood's Dare To Be Rare after-school event, inspiring girls to never give up on their dreams. After hearing Blair's story, students - along with her educational colleagues - couldn't help but get caught up in Blair's Olympic hopes.
"She had to work hard and she wasn't always successful at everything and sometimes she didn't make something, but she picked herself up and brushed herself off," Lakewood School Principal Asia Gurney said. "Maybe she had to try something different or try a little harder, and I think that's a very good influence for our kids.
"Her determination, her positive attitude and her willingness to work hard and have a vision and goal and work toward that is very inspiring."
Before leaving for Sochi in early February, Blair will train off-ice three days a week while skating one or two additional days to physically prepare for a women's style of play known for its finesse and wide-open play. Unlike the men's game, there is no body-checking in women's Olympic hockey, making conditioning - even for the officials - a top priority.
Blair, who worked the 2011 Asian Winter Games before 8,000 fans in an environment so loud she could barely hear, will begin to picture her biggest officiating assignment to date, embracing the opportunity as well as finally seeing her Olympic dream come true.
"I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this because it's so unique and so different than anything else I've ever experienced," Blair said. "Even at the tournaments I've worked, we don't get a lot of people, we don't get a lot of big crowds to come watch the games.
"So it's one of those things that I haven't ever seen, and so I don't even know what to envision."