Despite obstacles, Blake Surina succeeds

WWU’s first decathlon All-American and much more

by Paul Madison

BELLINGHAM, Wash. – After the competition and awards ceremony had ended on May 22, 1982, Western Washington University decathlete Blake Surina sat by himself high above Laidley Field in Charleston, West Virginia.

That morning and afternoon, he had put together a strong second-day performance to place sixth in the men’s decathlon and earn All-America honors at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Outdoor Track & Field Championships. His 10-event point total of 6,678 was a school record, 399 more than the previous best, as he became the first Viking to achieve All-America honors in that endeavor.

Even 37 years later, Surina’s total still ranks third in program history.

“Most track and field athletes who choose to participate in the decathlon can do fairly well on the first day, especially if they are sprinters and jumpers, but it takes a true decathlete to excel in the second day,” said former WWU men’s track and field coach Ralph Vernacchia in describing Surina. “Blake had a great second day at the national meet, especially in the last two events, the pole vault and 1,500 meters.

“He was an inspirational team leader and played a key role in contributing to our 1981 and 1982 district titles. He seemed to be everywhere and his teammates fed off his work ethic, energy, personality, and performances; he enjoyed the competitive environment and developed into an outstanding big meet performer.”

Now, sitting atop the grandstand, Surina looked back on the unbelievable journey he had made to reach that point and the people who had played pivotal roles in helping him triumph over incredible odds.

Surina had overcome homelessness, stays in an orphanage, arrests, juvenile detention, health issues and injuries.

“There are a million stories,” Vernacchia said in a 1985 Bellingham Herald article by Scott Sandsberry. “You look at this guy and you say, is this guy for real or what? The thing is, he is.”

“Hey, Blake Surina is a legend.”

Some of the names that came to mind for Blake, now an exercise physiologist, during his time of reflection were Gerry Woodard, Rocky Lockridge, Joe Peyton, Mark Mitsui, Margaret Aitken, Vernacchia, Dr. Pearson and Dick Held. There were people who helped and inspired him to overcome the obstacles that stood in his way.


When Blake was born in early November of 1958, his father worked at Boeing and was into politics, and his mother ran the first UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) for the city of Tacoma. There is a picture of then five-year-old Blake and his brother in front of assassinated President John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped casket as it lay in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Soon after that, his parents went through a bitter divorce with his father being sent to jail and his mother being admitted to Western State Hospital. While attending numerous grade schools, Blake lived at St. Ann’s Orphanage, and he spent nearly a year with his mother and a step-father homeless and finally living in a cabin in the Olympic National Forest.

After returning to Tacoma, Blake shoplifted and would break into cars to get money for food. After being arrested on 12 different counts of burglary, he spent time at Remann Hall, a juvenile detention facility, on three different occasions, but never for more than a few days.

“I remember one time sneaking into a Hostess bakery, grabbing a tray full of snack cakes and running across six lanes of traffic, spilling Twinkies and Snowballs all the way,” recalled Blake. “It didn’t take long for the police to track me down. They just had to follow the trail.”

During the summer between eighth and ninth grades, Surina would go to Jason Lee Middle School for free lunches and open gym. There he met a teacher, Gerry Woodard, who got him interested in weight lifting.

“He took me and another kid and put us on a weight-training program,” said Blake. “Every day he would show up and we worked out all summer with this guy. It was the first time in my life that I had really trusted someone.”

The other kid, who became a good friend of Surina’s, was Rocky Lockridge, who went on to win world championships as a boxer in the featherweight and super featherweight divisions.

On the last day of ninth grade, Surina received the Inspirational Athlete of the Year Award, only to arrive home to a note from his mother saying that she had left to start a new life on the east coast. Not wanting another stay at an orphanage, Blake obtained a large paper route which made it possible for him to survive on his own while living in the slums of Tacoma. It should be noted that he never drank alcohol, smoked or did drugs primarily because he had seen what those things could do to people.

Surina entered his sophomore year at Stadium High with a cumulative grade point average of 1.4 (4.0 scale), but got straight A’s the last five quarters of his junior and senior years.

“I felt that I had kind of settled in and it was time to be thinking about what I was going to do with my life,” Blake said. “So, I ended up writing my ideal job description. I still have it right here in my desk. It’s exactly what I do today, even though there was no such thing back then.”

Blake said the turnaround began with an awareness that came to him while running.

“When I turned out for track in middle school, I went over to the University of Puget Sound and ran some laps with guys doing interval work. I was keeping up with them pretty good and overseeing them was their coach (UPS legend) Joe Peyton. At the time, he thought that I was one of the college kids. He followed me my whole career and was one of my biggest supporters.

“But when I was doing that training with them, it became obvious to me … It doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from, all you have to do is run faster than the other guy. And that to me was fair. There is no subjectivity here … This is so objective. This is really clean. It’s easy. All I have to do is train harder than the other guy and get better. And when that realization hit, well that was the whole thing for me. I just have to work harder than the other guy. And that’s what I did. Track was fair … That’s when I started getting those 4.0s.”

Surina got little track experience in high school. When he was finally able to participate as a senior, his coach quit following two humiliating dual meet defeats.

Surina decided to attend Western after seeing in a publication that it was one of the best educational buys in the country. After high school graduation, he finagaled a job as a longshoreman to help pay for his education.

“I told the dispatcher, that Joe Surina was my grandfather and that he had promised me a job before he died so I could go to college,” Surina said. “Joe’s obituary was in the paper earlier that week. He was no relation, but he must have been a great guy because the dispatcher bought the story and I made $3,200 dollars in three months and got out of Tacoma before anyone found out I was not Joe Surina’s grandson. And I made it to Western.”

Western Experience

Finances were a little less of a problem for Surina after his arrival at Western because not being a dependent qualified him for more financial aid.

For reasons he still has not figured out, Surina signed up for third and fourth-year courses during his first two years and was allowed to take them. Perhaps contributing were his height, beard and looking much older than he was. Nevertheless, that turned out to be a huge break for Blake.

“The physical education department had recently purchased the Beckman Metabolic Measurement Cart, and Mark Mitsui, a junior, and I, a freshman, literally took over the sports science laboratory,” Surina said. “I understood that cart better than anybody else in the class, and I ended up doing a lot stress testing for Western.”

Stress testing provides information about how your heart and lungs work during physical exercise.

Mitsui was later appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Colleges within the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education for the U.S. Department of Education. He is now the president of Portland Community College.

In 1979, WWU physical education department chair Margaret Aitken had completed research for Project ACTIVE to develop curricular materials and teacher competencies in elementary school physical education with the goal of reducing sex-role stereotyping and sex discrimination in P.E. Surina and Mitsui did all of the stress testing for that.

Later that year, they tested the Women’s Olympic Rowing Team for Coach Bob Ernst and a few Olympic swimmers as well.

While flourishing as a student, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Surina was also doing well in athletics. He had trained hard the summer before coming to Western and walked into track coach Vernacchia’s office, introducing himself and stating that he would be the school’s next district javelin champion.

“Ralph said, ‘Great, how far do you throw?’” Blake recalled. “I said I didn’t know because I had never even touched a javelin before. He must have thought I was pretty much a wacko. But I did turn out for track as a freshman, and placed fourth at districts in the decathlon.”

During spring quarter of Surina’s first year at Western, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson came to speak on campus.

“During his presentation, he asked how many people have goals,” Surina said, “and I put up my hand along with everybody else in the room. ‘How many people have actually taken the time to write them down?’ About 40 people kept their hands up. ‘Now, how many people have their goals on them right now?’ And I was the only one to raise my hand.

“He asked me, ‘Can I see your goals?’ And I walked up on the stage and handed him a slip of paper. It read: Decathlon 6,700 points. He said, ‘You know, you’re going to achieve that goal.’”

But that aspiration nearly ended during Surina’s sophomore year at Western.

In the ninth grade he was diagnosed with a congenital condition that affected his blood pressure. But no one at the University was aware of it until he was demonstrating a treadmill test in class and the instructor noted Blake’s extremely high blood pressure and alerted Vernacchia. That, coupled with an earlier incident when Surina couldn’t see colors after running a 400-meter race without his beta blockers, caused Vernacchia to take him off the squad.

“I don’t think you ever want to get to a point in athletics where it’s counterproductive to one’s health,” said Vernacchia in that 1985 Bellingham Herald story. “He (Surina) wasn’t real diligent about taking his medication, and I was concerned about that.”

Banned from the weight room, Surina would do his workouts by going out to the parking lot and lifting up cars by their bumpers. “I’d go to one car and do 10 squats and then to another and do 10 more,” he said.

At one point during spring break of 1980, the situation got so depressing for Surina, who had been cleared by his doctor to compete, that he hopped on a box car and ended up in Elko, Nevada. He stayed there for a couple of weeks before deciding to return to Western and fight for the right to participate. It took nearly 18 months before he was cleared to return to the track team.

During that time, Surina pestered Vernacchia and other administrators almost daily. With the help of the Human Rights Commission, terms were worked out that allowed him to take part in athletic competition.

Making History

Behind in his training and having pulled his hamstring in the pole vault, Surina still finished fourth in the district decathlon, but at the district championships he took the javelin, keeping his promise to Vernacchia, and placed second in the shot put. That propelled the Vikings to a six-point team victory, the first in school history, with Surina being the top point scorer with 22.

As a senior, Surina was training hard with high aspirations when he broke his ankle playing in a pick-up basketball game after his last fall quarter final exam.

“I remember hobbling down to the hospital,” said Surina. “I had no place to stay during the breaks, so I would hide in the dorms and try to find food. The people at the Fairhaven Dining Hall would always load me up with supplies for the breaks.”

“I saw Dr. Pearson at the emergency room. I was pretty bummed because I was in the best shape of my life. He asked what I had for insurance. I said that I had none and didn’t even have a place to live. So, he put a cast on my ankle, walked me down the hall, opened up a door behind the hospital and said ‘See yah.’

“He (Dr. Pearson) was the first guy that I wrote after getting back from nationals, thanking him and telling him if it wasn’t for you I would not have achieved All-America status, and what it meant to me.”

Though hampered by the ankle, Surina placed in four events as the Vikings captured a second straight district team title. He was voted most inspirational and most improved by his teammates.

“I think everyone knew how much that meant to me and how hard I had to work to get there,” said Blake.

But he hadn’t qualified for nationals in the decathlon, placing third at districts.

Nevertheless, a few days later, Vernacchia called Surina into his office and asked, “Blake, what would you think if I took you to nationals (decathlon)?”

Surina remembered saying, “It’s been my dream coach,” and Vernacchia said, “You’re going. They only take 18, but there’s always going to be someone missing, so I’m taking you (as a free entry).”

At that time, Surina ranked 23rd nationally, but five of the people ahead of him didn’t show, so he got the last spot.

Despite a last-minute misunderstanding with the Registrar’s office in regards to credit hours, Surina was flying off to nationals.

On the flight, Surina looked at a booklet put together for him by the women’s cross country team. Each athlete had drawn a page depicting him doing an event. He was not to open it until he got on the plane. “It was a very emotional experience,” Blake said.

While weighing in his implements at nationals, one of the inspectors noticed Surina’s javelin was in pretty bad shape.

“He asked if he could clean it up for me,” said Surina. “The next day, I come back and it’s like brand new. It turned out to be Dick Held, the world’s foremost javelin expert. We later came to be good friends.”

The 1982 national decathlon competition began with Surina finishing far back in both the 100 meters and long jump. But he had the top mark in the shot put by over three feet (45-3 1/4) and after clearing 6-6 1/2 in the high jump and running a 52.0 400, Blake was fifth in the standings with everyone asking, “Who is this guy?”

Surina had an exceptional final day, especially in the final two events of the javelin and 1,500 to place sixth in the competition and earn All-America honors.

“What he did at nationals was really amazing,” said Vernacchia. “He thrived on the atmosphere. Where a lot of kids get apprehensive under pressure, he looked really good.

“Typical of that was his performance in the final event, the 1,500. He knew what he had to run to make the top six. And he ran it: a 4:30.9. He had a best of 4:52 coming in.”

The All-America performance led to a time of reflection as well as looking ahead.

“Afterwards, I just walked up in the bleachers and sat in the very top row and just started crying,” said Surina. “The thing that hurt a little bit was that I had no real family to share it with. That was the most bothersome thing. I had worked so hard for that for so long. And then to not have anybody know except myself. But another thing I learned from that competition is that if you want to get the very best performance, you’ve got to do it for yourself.

“And it was then I realized that I’ve got to set another goal. I’ve been working so long for this and now I’ve achieved about everything that I can … It was then I said that in a year I want to be at the Olympic Training Center (OTC). And a year and some months later I was there.”

However, his thoughts about track being fair would change greatly over the next three years.

“That’s why track was a natural fit until I got to the Olympic Training Center,” he said. “That was where for the first time I saw people who were working hardest sometimes not being the best because of drugs and other things. That really shook up that whole philosophy. Things changed quite dramatically for me from 1983 to 1985.”

Graduation And Beyond

Surina graduated from Western in 1982, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education with emphasis in pre-physical therapy, and he was named the department’s outstanding graduate. In 1985, he received a bachelor’s in secondary education.

Surina began his graduate work at WWU, while serving as an assistant coach for weight events and strength conditioning as the Vikings extended their district championship string to five (1981-85). He completed his master’s degree at UPS in hospital administration in 2002, graduating summa cum laude.

During that three-year span (1983-85), Surina also served as a sports medicine intern and administrative assistant for the Sports Medicine Division of the OTC located in Colorado Springs, Colo. There he worked under Kenneth S. Clarke, considered the “Father of Sports Medicine” in the United States.

Surina was at the OTC when blood testing was first required for Olympic athletes.

And it was there that Surina saw an old acquaintance.

“I was working at the Olympic Training Center in 1984 and I’m in the office when they were deciding who is going to run up the stands (at the L.A. Coliseum) to light the Olympic flame,” said Surina.  “In walks Rafer Johnson. He looks at me and says, ‘Have we met before?’ And I told him at Western and if he remembered me handing him my goals. And he said, ‘Yeah, I tell people that story all the time.’ Well, he was named as the guy to light the flame and our office organized everything.”

In 1985, Surina opened The Exercise Center in Fircrest, a suburb of Tacoma.It is now one of the United States foremost authorities of exercise testing and performance and evaluation. In 2004, KOMO TV recognized the ESC of Firecrest as the top health club in the Puget Sound region.

In a 2011 Seattle Times article written by Craig Hill, Surina said, “Strength training keeps you young and cardio keeps you alive … That’s what we are all about. Teaching people how to exercise and how to do it as a lifetime thing.

Throughout his life post-Western, Surina, who also is a certified respiratory therapist and pulmonary function technician, has kept himself busy in other ways. He has been a city council member for the City of Fircrest since 1996, won a bronze medal for the United States at the Team Handball National Championships, and is a three-time Masters track and field national champion.

Blake just continues to work harder.

Surina’s 1982 NAIA National Decathlon Results: 100 Meters 11.8, Long Jump 5.79 (19-0), Shot Put 13.80 (45-3 1/4), High Jump 1.84 (6-6 1/2), 400 Meters 52.0, 110 Meter Hurdles 17.1, Discus 39.02 (128-0), Pole Vault 3.88 (12-8 3/4), Javelin 55.72 (182-10), 1500 Meters 4:30.9, Points 6678.