Water-Skier Delights in Breaking the Age Barrier -- Barefoot

Millionaire, bank executive, movie actor -- but what really absorbs George Blair is being water-skiing's ambassador

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN it comes to water-skiing, as it always does with barefoot skier ''Banana'' George Blair, there's hardly anything he hasn't done.

The octogenarian has skied behind an airboat in alligator-dotted Florida waters. He has kite-skied, and dropped like a rock when the tow boat ran out of gas. He has skied barefoot in the debris-strewn Seine in Paris and in the icy waters of Antarctica, where in 1986 he became the only person to barefoot ski on every continent. And he has performed countless times in Florida's Cypress Gardens water-ski shows, which are practically down the street from his Winter Haven home.

A lover of Salvador Dali's art, bananas, and the color yellow, Blair acknowledges some gaps in his water-skiing portfolio. ''I've never skied in the Arctic,'' he says from the sun-warmed comfort of his airy, lakeside living room. ''I came close once, doing 28 shows in Norway and Sweden. We were scheduled to do a show in the Arctic Circle, but for one reason or another it got canceled.''

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He says he's had many invitations to ski in Alaska. The trouble is, he'd have to visit in the summer, when he is especially busy.

Ten years ago, Blair sold the business that made him a millionaire, a hospital portrait service that photographs newborns. He is the major stockholder and executive of a New Jersey bank, but remains most active in his avocation, serving as ambassador for water-skiing.

Numerous public appearances cut into his availability to Cypress Gardens, where he says he now skis ''religiously, sporadically.''

Lately, he's been promoting a low-budget independent movie, ''Captiva Island,'' in which he and Ernest Borgnine star. It opened at theaters around Florida earlier this month. Blair plays a Rocky-like character who out-races a 13-year-old water-skier.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Blair discovered water-skiing 40 years ago in Florida while recuperating from back surgery. Lyle Lee, a Fort Lauderdale ski-school operator, convinced Blair that if he could stand up and walk, he could water-ski. Blair was soon hooked.

Not long after, Blair started his own ski schools in Red Bank and Edison, N.J., and ran them for many years. He also put on water-ski shows featuring him and his four daughters.

Six years after his introduction to water-skiing, Blair made barefoot-skiing's acquaintance. For a guy who thrives on challenges, this was just the ticket.

''Some people say that we are the elite [of water-skiing], like the paratroopers,'' he says. ''We've been called nuts, the reckless.''

Blair suspects that the movie could transform this image. Then, too, he's working on a new teaching aid, a suspended, hammock-like seat that he says will make learning easy.

''People are afraid of what's going to happen,'' he says. ''Now they can sit in my chair and feel the water a little bit at a time. They put more and more weight on their feet, and finally they stand up.''

Under ideal barefoot-skiing conditions, Blair says, there is a very slight ripple on the water's surface, just enough to prevent the burn than can occur on ''glass,'' or perfectly still water.

Contrary to what many imagine, Blair says, the bottoms of his feet are baby soft. ''They get a water massage every day,'' he explains.

Even so, barefooting is a workout. On calm water, Blair can barefoot for about 10 minutes straight, he says, but in chop he can stay up only about a minute or two. ''Every fiber of every muscle is shot'' after skiing in rough water, he observes.

Skiing in windy conditions also adds to the difficulty, since stability is harder to maintain without skis.

ON the day the Monitor visited the Blair home, gusts made barefoot-skiing iffy, but Banana George was bound and determined to put on a show.

He slipped into his yellow wetsuit, grabbed a banana from the laundry room, and made his way down to the lakefront with his trusty boat driver, wife JoAnne.

''Give me 40,'' he instructed her on the desired boat speed. She gunned the motor, and from a submerged start, Blair began to work his way to his feet inside an explosion of water.

Getting up requires quite an effort, and the finish isn't any lark either, with a layback reentry transforming Blair's body into a virtual skipping stone.

Blair is an irrepressible showman, though, and he hams it up more than one might expect given the small audience. He mugs for the camera, even skis without using his hands, gripping a leather handle flap between his teeth.

Blair loves the notion of breaking the age barrier. He considers himself something of a missionary in this regard, which may explain his eagerness to share his Banana George materials -- copies of published stories about him, a personal newsletter, and TV clips. He uses a borrowed key to the Water Ski Museum/Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined in 1991, to treat his visitors to an after-hours tour.

Symbolically, much in Blair's world is vibrant yellow. Chiquita picked up on this, and though the banana grower doesn't have him under contract, it constantly replenishes his supply of bananas. Better yet, the delivery truck now stops at the Blairs' home before delivering to the local supermarkets.

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