There is no one who exemplifies a strong and healthy life better than 94-year-old "Banana" George Blair. World-renowned for his colorful athletic style, George discovered a passion for water skiing in his forties, and developed an exercise plan that has served him into his nineties.
He was still water skiing, barefoot, at the age of 93.
It was my good fortune to connect with George and his wife, JoAnne. I am honored that George gave me his approval to include this profile of him in my book, because he is the very definition of what an older athlete is capable of.
If Jack LaLanne is the pioneer of raising America's awareness of what can be achieved through fitness, it is Banana George who symbolizes the joy and exuberance available through exercise. All who know the love of an active life owe a tremendous amount of thanks to both George and Jack for helping to stoke the fire of our athletic passions.
George's life is as interesting as it is long and strong. Born in 1915, he grew up in Todedo, Ohio, and was captain of his high school golf team. At Miami University of Ohio, he studied government and political science. With the Great Depression in full swing, George would hop trains to get from Ohio to Florida for spring break with his college fraternity brothers. It was on one of these trips that George was thrown from a train by hoboes and badly injured his back. This unfortunate incident would actually set the stage for the invention of Banana George as we know him.
After college, George worked for the city of Butler, Pennsylvania; served as a prcurement officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II: and started a company that took hospital photos of newborn babies and their mothers. Later, as a successful banker and real estate investor, he lived in New Jersey and had an apartment in New York City. In his late thirties, his back injury was so painful that he needed to have surgery. After surgery, he spent time recuperating in Florida.
His doctor advised him to swim to help him recover, but when George tried, he sank like a rock. A water ski instructor suggested that he try skiing, and when he did, George became totally enamored with the sport. At age 46, he skied barefoot for the first time, and soon adopted the moniker "Banana George," because of his lifelong love for the color yellow, his love for bananas, and the sunshiny joy that he himself exuded when he water skied. From yellow wetsuits to yellow suit jackets, George can readily be seen wearing his trademark color.
With his newfound enthusiasm for skiing and his knack for showmanship, George was soon entertaining crowds at Cypress Gardens in Florida. He was so adept at water skiing that he set several world records, including being the oldest person to ever barefoot water ski. He was also the first person to barefoot water ski on all seven continents.
Known all over the world, George has been a guest of leaders of many countries, including China, Australia, France, Germany, and Monaco. His popularity proved itself with American women when in 2002, Sports Illustrated for Women voted, then 87-year-old George, one of the world's sexiest men in sports.
Having picked up one of his fondest sports at the age of 46, George represents an approach to exercise that is taken by the majority of the over-50 athletes I have interviewed. This approach is used by innovative people who change from one sport to another – sometimes more than once. The result is a fresh and interesting physically active life.
George often tried new athletic adventures. After skiing barefoot for the first time at 46, he took his first solo airplane flight at 53. Then at 70, he took up wakeboarding; at 75, snowboarding; at 81, race car driving; at 82, skydiving; at 83, surfing; and at age 85, he rode a bull.
It's been said before: he's an incurable daredevil. Couple that with his outrageous joy and enthusiasm, and it's easy to understand his legendary influence on American athletics. George's vitality has infused our culture with a "can do" spirit for decades, while his playfulness reminds us of the fun and pleasure that we get from sports. Who in America's athletic community hasn't been affected by his crazy-happy spirit?
George, we thank you from the bottom of our healthy hearts!