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When Paul Blair took over as coach of the Little Rock Racquet Club swim team in 1979, the Dolphins were already a regional aquatics power. Founded 22 years earlier by a group of Little Rock businessmen (including my father) who wanted to create a swim-and-tennis club that was more inclusive and more dedicated to the ideals of athletic competition than the country club, the Racquet Club had become a training ground for national-caliber swimmers and the regular winner of the state team championship.
Just four years out of college when he moved to Little Rock from West Virginia, Blair took the Dolphins to a new level. In his 27-year tenure as coach of the Arkansas Dolphins swim club, Blair — who died on Nov. 8 after a three-year struggle with prostate cancer — produced dozens of state titlists, 35 national age-group champions, seven national Masters champions, six Olympians, and an Olympic gold medalist. For many years national- and world-class swimmers relocated during the summer to Little Rock so they could train under Coach Blair. Along with 57 Arkansas state championships, the Dolphins won the U.S. men’s national championship in 1989, prompting Blair — who was known as much for his dry humor as well as his prowess at producing world-class swimmers — to say, “If you can win a national title from Little Rock, you can win one from anywhere.”
He was, in short, the most accomplished coach in any sport in Arkansas history next to John McDonnell.
Blair was a genius at producing sprinters — those strange hydrodynamic athletes who can zip through the water for less than a minute at astonishingly high speeds. He was among the first swimming coaches to realize that the traditional “train to exhaustion” method of developing short-distance swimmers was counter-productive. He emphasized technique over brute force, particularly “streamlining” — gliding through the water with as little resistance as possible — and he espoused a deceptively simple coaching philosophy: “To swim fast in a race you have to swim fast in practice.”
Blair’s approach to life was equally straightforward. “Life is very simple if you allow it to be,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette not long after his diagnosis. “Most people make life a lot more cumbersome and complicated than it really is.”
Along with my brother Doug Martin, Paul played in a regular monthly poker game for more than two decades. For about 15 years the poker group made an annual winter trip to Aspen to ski during the day and gamble at night.
“Paul learned how to ski in his mid-40’s and it definitely wasn’t always a pretty sight,” says Pat Riley, the executive director of the Little Rock Athletic Club, “nonetheless, after a couple of years his nickname on the slopes was ‘Air Blair’ — which came from his penchant for going full-tilt down the hill and ‘catching air’ whenever possible, typically not landing on his feet when he came back to earth.
“At the end of the day, Paul was often bruised and battered and exhausted but with a huge smile and his trademark phrase: ‘It doesn’t get much better than this.’ ”
Blair was not perfect; he had, shall we say, a clear idea of his own ability and his value, which was one of several factors that led to his split from the Racquet Club in the late 1990s, when he set up the Dolphins as an independent club, training at UALR.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Coach Blair is that, in dozens of times being around him at the pool, I never once heard him yell at a swimmer. He coached through encouragement and inspiration, not intimidation and fear. And after he got sick he became even more of an inspiration.
On Facebook.com, one of Blair’s former swimmers wrote this about the late coach:
“I miss how it was just me and him in the mornings doing abs [i.e., sit-ups]. We would sit out on the mat on the pool deck and he’d lay there while I did my dryland [exercises] and talk to me. He’d talk about everything, but mostly about how much he believed in me and I wasn’t afraid to tell him anything. Sometimes he would get sick and I would always say ‘I’m sorry,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to be sorry about, it’s not your fault.’
“Then I would go to his office and we would talk some more and he would always say something like, ‘Allright, see ya buddy, back to it this afternoon.’ Or he would point at me and say ‘You’re gonna be good.’
“I’ve never met anyone that believed in me so much and encouraged and taught like him. I wouldn’t still be swimming if it wasn’t for him. He’s what keeps me going, and still will. I’m gonna miss him so much, but I hope he’ll be there beside me next time I lay down on the mat to do dryland, and I know he will be there on the pool deck every time I dive in the water.”
The swimmer who wrote that is my nephew, James Martin.
Rick Martin, who lives in Boulder, is a former editor of the Arkansas Times. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.
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