Lauren Blankenship originally saw cross country as a fun activity during the offseason of soccer, her favorite sport in high school. But she soon found out she was good enough to become a state champion. She went on to win individual state championships -- two at Class AA and one at Class A -- in her three varsity seasons at Wesleyan from 2001-02. She was a Daily Post first-team All-County selection twice and the Runner of the Year in 2002 before heading off to Samford for her college career. She is now trying her hand at coaching as an assistant at her alma mater and later a part-time assistant at Ole Miss. Now an assistant coach at Georgia State, Blankenship recently talked with staff writer David Friedlander about how a hobby became a career, among other topics.
DF: How did you initially get into cross country? It wasn't your initial sport?
LB: I started playing soccer since fourth grade. Pretty much my whole vision was to go play soccer. My sophomore year of high school, I had a Bible teacher at Wesleyan, her name is Libby Houk, and ... Wesleyan being a small school, they were really encouraging kids to get out on the field for sports. So, (Houk) had me come out for cross country. They just thought it was a way for me to stay in shape for soccer, which is in the spring. My whole career in high school, I never ran track. I just ran cross country and played club soccer outside of (school).
I realized my talent pretty quick. I won state my sophomore (season), which was my first year, and my junior and senior year. Come my senior year, it came to the point where I had to look myself in the mirror and say, 'You know, there's a lot of really good soccer players and a few really good runners.
DF: There's obviously a different lifestyle in cross country than in soccer. It's even different between cross country and track and field, isn't it?
LB: Yes. Most tracks are about the same. ... But not having the same course every week allows us to challenge (runners) in different ways. It's kind of a culture they have to get used to. I will say my first year of college I remember my first track season. Really, I went to practice and I was asking how many laps we had to run because I didn't know. ... I was kind of naive and stupid.
DF: Once you got to Samford, what made you decide you might want to try coaching as a career?
LB: I don't think coaching ever crossed my mind until probably my senior year. The head coach at the time had talked about me coaching (with) him. ... I was actually contacted late after I'd accepted the job at Samford by McMillan Elite, (a running club) out in Flagstaff, Ariz., but they'd contacted me too late.
DF: You had a quick start to your coaching career, didn't you?
LB: From the get-go, I think I was kind of thrown in the deep end. ... The new (head coach) kept me and kept the assistant who was my assistant coach (Chad James) when I was running. So, you can imagine working equally with my old assistant. ... So, he put me and Chad James equally with the men and women (teams). That first month, Chad was actually in Beijing (coaching in the 2008 Paralympic Games). So I led the whole men's and women's teams by myself.
That in itself probably made me a stronger individual. It taught me a lot about what I was doing and just to get (the runners) to trust me and earn their respect.
DF: How awkward was it coaching runners who were your teammates just a semester earlier?
LB: It was very awkward, but I just kind of had to be tough. You have to be mature enough to say, 'I'm here for one reason, and that's to better these kids no matter if they were on the team with me or not.' I had to put that personal issue to the side.
DF: At the same time, you're only 26 years old. Has being closer to the age of some of these runners now helped you relate to them better?
LB: The first situation was kids that were on the team with me, so that was a battle in itself. At Ole Miss, I did see a little attitude with the fact they were close to my age, but both places, I realized there's a line you don't cross. I'm not there to be their best friend. I feel more comfortable with that now.
But I do run into a situation like today, somebody asked me, 'Do you work here, or are you a student?' And I said, 'Thank you. In 10 years, I'll really appreciate that.'
DF: That said, is being a head coach something you'd like to do some day?
LB: Most definitely. I don't feel like I'm ready to be one right now. I think I can do it. Fortunately, I've been really blessed. ... So far in my short term in coaching, I've been in the (Southern Conference), the SEC and now the CAA. ... I'm very fortunate to have gotten this far without having to be a volunteer assistant.
DF: So what brought you to Georgia State? Was it a chance to return home to metro Atlanta?
LB: Well, that was appealing, of course, but also I was looking out for myself. The situation at Ole Miss, there were issues with the head coach being there another year. Once they granted the head coach another year, ... they had offered to bring me full pay, but the administration was waiting to grant it. ... I had already told myself I wasn't happy living with (coaching essentially) full-time, working on my master's and having a part-time job. ... Once they announced the opening (at GSU) I looked into it.
DF: What did you know about Georgia State athletics when you came here?
LB: Not too much, to be honest. In terms of conference, I knew they were in a different conference (the Colonial Athletic Association). ... I'd seen them when I coached at Samford. They beat our women's team one year, so I knew that they had a decent program. ... When I was coming out of high school, no one from Georgia State (recruited) me. So, I really didn't know much about them.
DF: So, what have you found since you've been at GSU that you like about it?
LB: Obviously, (GSU athletics director) Cheryl Levick is really sharp. Coming in and seeing her and just the direction she wants to take the program. In coaching you're looking for something concrete, so I'm excited about her vision for the program.
Obviously, the growth they're having. (The addition of) football was a huge perk. The HOPE (scholarship) in Georgia is very helpful in terms of our sport and recruiting. The head coach (Chris England) is obviously young. And just getting away from being a commuter (campus) to a more (tradition) campus.
DF: Georgia State is still a very urban campus. I know there is still an off-campus course ...
LB: It used to be a Panthersville (in southwest DeKalb County), but now it's at Nash Farm (Battlefield Park in Hampton), and we'll actually host the CAA championships (this fall).
DF: But how different is it coaching at a campus in which you have to go miles away to train and compete as opposed to Ole Miss, where they course is probably closer to campus?
LB: It's definitely an adjustment. You just have to be creative. When I was coaching at Ole Miss, I lived literally two minutes from the track. And we had a track there, too. They had a railroad bed of trails, which we don't have here. But we do have Piedmont Park, which is two and a half miles (long), so that is a friendly place we will use more often.
But it is a lifestyle here. You know you're getting on a van and going to Kennesaw Mountain or Chastain Park or Nash Farm or Piedmont, and it's just something you get used to.
DF: As an assistant coach, recruiting is probably a big part of your job. How much does knowing the area, particularly Gwinnett County, help in that regard? And how many familiar faces do you see among the coaches, both high school and college?
LB: It helps big-time. It's funny because Georgia Tech's coach (Alan Drosky), he recruited me (out of high school), and he's still there. (Jeff Pigg) at UGA is still there. ... So, to see familiar faces is always comforting.
I know that the former head coach here (at GSU) is now at a high school. ... We went out recruiting at Wesleyan (a few) weeks ago and they're always open (arms) to me. I can only hope for the best ... We've got some work to do here to get (the GSU) name out because we're not Georgia Tech, we're not Georgia. We don't have that name associated with us yet. So, it's going to take a couple years to get in that situation.
But I definitely feel like I have some great connection (with the high school coaches), and hopefully, they'll respect what I've done and the direction I've taken.