George Block is a man of ulterior motives, and I mean that in the best way.
Block, being inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, was ostensibly the guy in charge of pools and swimming lessons for the Northside Independent School District from 1977-2009.
Instead, he created an internationally recognized swim program that produced 52 UIL gold medalists; 285 high school All-Americans; USA Olympic Trials qualifiers in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000; and six Olympians.
Block retired in 2009, but he really didn’t.
He’s now championing an initiative to teach swimming to Hispanics and African-Americans, who drown at rates much higher than whites. As it turns out, he’s also teaching kids in those neighborhoods how to meet life’s challenge’s with confidence.
We think of sports heroes as those who score points and win games. When they win often, they’re famous. When they transcend sport, they become legendary.
In 39 years, George Block hasn’t suited up or raced in a pool. And while he’s well-known is education and swimming circles, he’s not famous.
And despite that, George Block has become legend.
Known internationally for his coaching success, competitive swimming was both a lure and a byproduct of Block’s real purpose, said Scott Zolinski, NISD’s assistant athletic director for aquatics.
Block hired Zolinski in 1979 as a middle school teacher and coach of Clark’s swim team.
“His whole focus has always been about water safety,” Zolinski said. “‘How can we get them around the water and get them to a swim lesson?’ It was his passion. The icing on the cake is that kids that come in to do year-round swimming and then you push them to get to their goals.”
That’s what he did to Dr. Mandie Svatek, a champion swimmer at Marshall, where she graduated in 1993. Then swimming as Mandie Tibball, she was having a tough time at practice. Block pulled her out of the water for a chat.
He told her that work ethic was more important than swimming for medals.
“He said, ‘You’re a hard worker. You’re tenacious. You’re building yourself into someone successful. I can see you being a successful doctor and coming back here with your kids,’” Svatek said. “And that’s exactly what happened. And he put that vision in my head.”
Block’s reach extends beyond the edge of the pool.
“You get to the point where you realized where you’re making a powerful impact on kids lives,” Block said. “But it’s a really small number. To create overall change, you’ve got to change systems. I had to get involved in things that were bigger than what I was doing.”
Giving swim lessons to kids in underserved communities fits that description. Studies show 70 percent of African-Americans and 60 percent of Hispanics can’t swim.
“If you think about it, a swim lesson is the first time a kid faces something they think they can’t do,” Block said. “Self-confidence comes when you do something you’re absolutely sure you can’t do. For 3- or 4-year-olds, success in swimming is the biggest self-confidence booster you can have.”
“It starts to change their life and shows them the self-confidence they’ll need to succeed in life.”
We are told that sports can transform lives and communities.
Block — through swim lessons, gold medals and education — has shown us exactly how that works.