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Barefoot Old Boy, with Cheek
Franz Lidz
May 18, 1992
At 77, 'Banana' George Blair is a millionaire and a barefoot water-skiing wonder
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May 18, 1992

Barefoot Old Boy, With Cheek

At 77, 'Banana' George Blair is a millionaire and a barefoot water-skiing wonder

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"Here's a picture of me when I was a boy in Toledo," he says. "I had a congenitally displaced spine but didn't even know it." He was a strong, athletic kid who jumped over barrels on ice skates. "When I got older, I could jump over my four daughters." he says with a little snuffle of a laugh. "I bet I can still do cartwheels." He threatens to do a couple. But he is dissuaded for the sake of his furniture.

His back condition was aggravated by a fall from a moving freight train. He was a college kid on spring break in 1934, riding the rails with a couple of hoboes. The hoboes wanted his can of beans, but he wouldn't let go. They scuffled. Hoboes and beans stayed in the boxcar. Blair got heaved into a ditch. "I hit the ground back first," he says. "I was in such mortal agony that no amount of morphine could quell it."

The pain stayed with Blair for years. By his late 30's it had nearly immobilized him. He had to crawl out of bed every morning on hands and knees, then clutch his night table to stand up.

Finally, in 1955 at age 40, he submitted to spinal-fusion surgery. His doctor urged him to go to Florida to recuperate. In Fort Lauderdale, strapped in a steel brace from his hips to his armpits, he would sit in his wheelchair and watch ski school students whiz past. One day an instructor challenged him to sign up.

"You must be joking," said Blair, "I can barely walk. How do you expect me to ski?"

"I've seen you get up and down from that chair," said the instructor. "If you can do that, you can learn how to ski."

And after a few false starts, Blair did, brace and all. "The first time I got up. I felt like a giant weight had been lilted from my mind and body," he says. "After all those years of misery, I suddenly felt exhilarated." So exhilarated that he bought a boat and took it home to New Jersey. "I was in a brace another six months," he says. "And every one of those days I was out skiing." He even hired instructors and opened his own school near Edison.

Blair went barefoot six years later. "It looked impossible," he says. "So I thought I'd give it a try."

In those days—the early 1960s—Blair was a bit of a tenderfoot. "Boy, did that hurt!" he says. "There were no wet suits, and the boats were too slow. Barefooting was a real bone-crusher." He needed three days to get the hang of it, an entire year to earn his one-minute rating card, attesting to his ability to barefoot for an entire minute without a break. A year later the barefoot club of the American Water Ski Association gave him his two-minute rating. These days he can bare and grin it for up to 15 minutes. "My feet are so tough. I'll never need a podiatrist," he says.

Banana George didn't compete until 1979, when he was 64. He was watching a tournament when an official asked him why he hadn't entered.

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