The Water Beneath—The Joe Blair Story

Olympian

words: Marla Cantrell
Images: Courtesy Joe and Mary Blair

It is a gray winter morning, just days after the year’s first snow, and the wind is blowing as if it wants something to fall down. But inside Joe and Mary Blair’s house on Shadow Lake in Greenwood, Arkansas, the outside world appears as calm as a sleeping kitten. A row of windows shows the silvery water that dances on the shore of the Blairs’ property. A robin clutches the branch of a tree, its orange belly bright as an M&M.

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Joe and Mary Blair

Joe stands with his hands on his hips, looking out. He is wearing jeans, a gray thermal shirt, a gold wedding band that catches the sun. Mary sits nearby, watching her husband. Her eyes are dark brown, beautiful. Her smile is even better.

The two talk the way good married couples do. Joe will start a story, omit a fact, and Mary supplies the answer. Mary brags on Joe, and he pulls his fingers through his silver hair, blushes, and says, “Oh, Mary.”

There is plenty to brag about. Last year, Joe was chosen by the American Water Ski Association to compete in the 35+ Water Ski World Championships (his category was 65+) which took place in Seseña, Spain in September. (The categories 35+ and 65+ simply mean thirty-five and older, and sixty-five and older, respectively.)
It came at a time when Joe could use a big win. In November of 2015, after much prompting from Mary, he’d gone to the doctor to see about a lump that had formed on his leg. As an avid biker, skier, gym devotee, Joe figured the knot was just an injury. But when the test results came back, they showed Joe had lymphoma.

Mary took the news hard. But Joe didn’t waver. He said, “I want my life to stay the same.” He went to the gym every day. He kept riding his bike. He ate well, mostly vegetables, the way he has for a good long while.

If anything changed at all, it was that he napped a bit more than usual. When worry set in, he held fast to his faith. He prayed. Mary prayed. They helped each other.

He completed radiation treatment, which began in December of 2015, and all is well. He goes in for tests every three months, but soon he’ll only have to test twice a year. As he says this, he is praising the treatment he received in Fort Smith, and the care everyone involved took with him.

In April of last year, he was skiing again. And not just skiing for recreation. When Joe skis, he’s usually training for a tournament. To make matters a little more interesting, Joe is a trick skier, one of those amazing athletes who does feats of fancy on a pair of skis.

Watching Joe ski is a beautiful thing. He will turn his back to the boat and turn back around again, or lift one foot into a stirrup, or jump the wakes in the water. He is one fluid motion after another, like a dancer on waves.

In competitions, the goal is to do as many tricks as you can in the time allotted. Joe’s numbers are impressive. There are two twenty-second runs, and on the first, he’ll do thirteen tricks. The boat turns to take another swath through the water, and Joe does twelve more. The pace is incredibly fast, and one of the biggest goals is never to stumble or fall.

In those moments, every muscle is in play. His mind is working ahead, seeing every possibility, visualizing every flick of his wrist, every turn his ankle must make. On the water, Joe is as alive as he’s ever been. On the water, he remembers the turns that led him there.

To see the beginning, you have to go back even further than Joe. You have to see his mom, born in 1907, and his dad, born in 1901. You have to imagine them, (she was thirty-nine years old) in a travel trailer in 1946 making their way through the South on their way to California. Joe’s dad wanted to show Joe’s mom the world. Her life had not been easy, and she was about to become a mother. Abandoned as an infant and left in a basket at an apartment building in New York City, she later became one of the children who rode the Orphan Train in search of a home.

In Little Rock, Joe’s mom started having some trouble with her pregnancy, but after a doctor’s visit, they pushed on. When they reached Fort Smith, she said she wasn’t willing to have her baby in a travel trailer, so the Blairs stayed put. After Joe had arrived, the lure of California faded.

What Joe remembers was being an only child whose parents loved him. “Everybody was poor back then,” he says, “so we didn’t notice it. We played sandlot baseball. I was ten when one family got a TV. That was a big deal. I grew up on Alabama Street, and the city limits ended at Fiftieth. They’d come out and oil the dirt roads. It was a different time.”

As Joe got a bit older, he discovered skiing magazines and saw glossy photos of skiers, the spray of water behind them, the look of joy spread across their tanned faces. And then, he came across a copy of Popular Mechanics, not surprising since his dad was an auto mechanic. In it, there were plans on how to make wooden skis. His father, talented in so many ways, did make them, and eventually, the family owned a fifteen-foot wooden boat with a small horsepower motor to go with the homemade skis.

Not exactly a heavenly setup, but it didn’t slow down Joe, who was twelve years old at the time. He and his parents, neither of whom could swim, would head to Wister Lake or Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma on weekends, and Joe would spend the day with them on the water. Sometimes, Joe would bring a friend. The motor on their boat was so small, it had a hard time pulling Joe.
“I drank a lot of lake water,” Joe says of that time. “I spent a lot of time sinking.”

When he was thirteen, on a trip to Cypress Gardens in Florida, he saw professional skiers doing tricks like the Human Pyramid. Joe thought it was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. Back at home, he was teaching himself tricks. He’d turn around, holding one foot out to the side, teaching himself to trick ski. Before long, he was competing in tournaments,
and gaining the knowledge that helped him excel at this sport.

The only break Joe’s taken from skiing was for about a decade when life got incredibly busy with family and work. But once the Blairs built their house on this lake in the 1980s, when Joe was barely forty, he returned to the water. Mary was right beside him, driving the boat, coaching him as he got better and better.

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U.S. Team in Spain

All that devotion paid off. Joe and Mary felt it as they arrived in Spain in September of last year. Here they were, meeting the best skiers on the planet, for a competition that would test Joe and every member of the U.S. team. The lake they skied on was perfect. Calm waters, about fifty feet wide, just right. Joe skied in the mornings, with the chill still in the air. Mary was in the boat with the crew, her job to release the rope should Joe fall. In skiing crowds, it’s called “pulling the pin.” At lunchtime, he and Mary ate in a tent set up for the athletes and listened as dozens of languages were spoken.

On their off time, they explored Spain, the old buildings, the narrow streets. They marveled at the way the town shut down from four to eight or so in the evening, for siestas. If they were hungry during those times, their only option was a sandwich at their hotel.
When the competition ended, they’d made international friends and memories that sustain them still. The U.S. Team took the gold. Canada came in second. France third. As for Joe individually, he came in fifth, meaning that at the end of the competition, his world ranking was number five in his age division.

He has no plans to slow down. “Trick skiing keeps you jumping. You’re always learning something. Mary and I have made so many friends. And we’re a team in this. I couldn’t do it without her.”

Asked what life would have been like without skiing, and Joe laughs. “I’d probably have a whole lot more money.” But then he seems to reflect for a minute, and he says, “But what would be the fun of that?”

Outside the silvery water continues to rush the shore of Shadow Lake. In May, Joe will be in Lawton, Oklahoma, competing again. But before that, he’ll be out on this lake, dressed in a wetsuit, skis on, his heart soaring, feeling the water bend and quake beneath his feet.

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