The eccentric barefoot water-skier “Banana” George Blair, whose aquatic exploits amused and inspired audiences around the world for decades, has died at 98. Known for his skill, his sartorial flamboyance, and his longevity, Blair was the grand old man of the stunt water-skiing circuit. But as Lisa Coffey notes at the Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger, Blair was more than just an elderly daredevil in a bright yellow wetsuit:
The Guinness Book of Records says Blair is the only person to have skied on all seven continents—the last in Antarctica in 1986 on Whaler’s Bay. The self-promoter skied exhibitions in 45 countries, including the Soviet Union. The Water Ski Hall of Fame says his visit there in 1988 opened doors between skiers in Europe’s Eastern bloc and the world.
He skied on a hydrafoil at 48 and flew solo at 53. At 68, he rode a camel, at 75 he snowboarded. He drove a race car at 81. At 83, he sky dived and surfed. At 85, he rode a bull.
The Ledger’s obituary is lovely, and worth reading in full; it chronicles a uniquely American life lived at the confluence of genius and mania. Though Blair made millions in banking, baby photography, and mosquito abatement, barefoot water-skiing was his passion, and he indulged it well into his 90s. “It’s a tough sport,” Blair told the Ledger before he died. “It’s caused me four broken backs, 11 broken ribs, a broken knee and a broken ankle, all while performing.” But the occasional pain was offset by the endless pleasure he took in a sport that, he said, kept him young.
Blair came to water-skiing later in life, after years of pain from a back injury incurred during the Great Depression, when a gang of violent hobos threw him from a moving boxcar after an argument over some beans. Finally, at age 39, he underwent spinal fusion surgery, afterwards traveling to Florida to recuperate. It was there, as a 1992 St. Petersburg Times profile reported, that Blair had his road to Damascus moment:
Lodged in a hotel near a water skiing school, Blair watched the skiers daily. One day the instructor approached him and asked if he’d like to give it a try. At first, Blair didn’t think it was possible.
“I was in a steel (back) brace that went from my armpits to my waist,” Blair said, “and it was covered in leather.”
The instructor encouraged him to try, so Blair, using a training boom attached to the boat, skied for the first time. He was 40.
“I was so happy to do something athletic,” Blair said. “It was like I was born again.”
He never stopped skiing. Blair performed hundreds of barefoot skiing shows per year at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Fla., where he would thrill audiences with his signature stunt: biting the tow rope and being towed by his teeth. When not in Winter Haven, Blair toured the world, an indefatigable advocate for bananas, water sports, nutrition, and the active lifestyle. In 2002, at age 87, Sports Illustrated for Women named Blair one of the sexiest men in sports, alongside more conventional choices like Rick Fox and Andy Roddick; he posed in sunglasses and a yellow Speedo.
The “Banana George” moniker came from his love for the color yellow. “I am the walking personification of Curious George,” Blair told the St. Petersburg Times in 2003, and, indeed, he lived in a yellow house, drove a yellow car, and devoured bananas by the box. Blair’s flamboyance made him a natural for the screen; he played a water-skier named “George” in the 1995 made-for-TV movie Captiva Island (“the duet of Ernest Borgnine and Arte Johnson singing The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” was a highlight,” one IMDb reviewer notes). Blair was a common sight on television, where morning-show hosts were inevitably taken aback by his vigor and apparent recklessness. On CBS This Morning in 1992, a bemused Harry Smith asked Blair to describe the worst accident he ever had:
The worst accident I ever had was when I hit that ramp with my back at 40 miles an hour. When I flew off that ramp, I was high in the air and I said to myself, “My goodness sakes, I’ve hit my rump on that ramp.” And then I said, “I think I broke my back” and then I said, “I think I’m going to die.” But they picked me up about 10 minutes later out of the water and, fortunately, I had a good surgeon and we got it put back together and nine weeks later I was barefooting for the Guinness Book of Records.
Though Blair said he wanted to die on his skis, the onset of Lewy body dementia in 2009 made that dream impossible. He died Thursday, Oct. 17, leaving behind his wife, four daughters, several grand- and great-grandchildren, and a truly odd and wonderful legacy. We won’t see his likes again. Rest in peace.