For those who knew her best, Mary Blair Polaski was the epitome of perseverance, spirit and positivity.
The highly decorated speedskating athlete and coach, who touched countless lives in the Colorado Springs area and beyond, passed away in Denver on Monday after a 10-year battle with leukemia. She was 68.
Polaski, the older sister of five-time Olympic gold medalist Bonnie Blair, began skating at 10 and developed into one of the nation’s top talents. Polaski was the national indoor senior champion in 1968 and 1981 and won the 1969 North American Indoor senior title.
She coached the U.S. World Short Track Team in 1978 and 1979 and was a former U.S. national coach. Polaski spent years teaching the sport to area youth as coach of the Broadmoor Speedskating Team at the Colorado Springs World Arena and was a constant source of support and inspiration to those around her.
Now Bonnie Blair Cruikshank, the six-time Olympic medalist remembers her sister’s innate competitiveness and fun-loving approach to life.
“She was almost like a second mom to me,” said Blair, a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. “With her background and experience in sports, she was competitive in everything she did. It was a hokey and fun competitiveness, and she would always make games out of everything.
“Those competitive juices followed through to the rest of us younger brothers and sisters who followed behind her.”
That attitude also helped Polaski battle the disease for more than a decade.
“When they first diagnosed her with leukemia, they gave her six months to live, and that was 10 years ago,” Blair said. “That’s a testament to her competitiveness and her will to live.”
Polaski was enshrined into the National Speedskating Museum & Hall of Fame in 1998 and was honored with the 1999 Col. F. Don Miller Award by the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame for her contributions to the city’s sports community.
“She coached swimming to young kids, tennis in high school and was active in so many different sports,” Blair said. “It was always good positive feedback, and she found ways to encourage the kids to change a habit if they were having trouble or doing something wrong. She was somebody you knew you could always count on.”
Polaski and husband, Ken, who was a gymnast at Illinois and avid speedskater, had four children – Kenneth Jr., Diana, Scott and Nicholas. Scott, who played hockey for Colorado College from 2001-05, fondly remembers his mother’s unending support of his athletic endeavors.
“What I remember most was a constant inspiration I received from her to be great,” he said. “She always made me feel like I was better, and she had so much pride in what I did that I wanted to make her proud. My mom was good at getting more and more and more out of people and making them love it.
“She just had all of these amazing intangibles to make her this incredible coach, incredible mom and incredible friend.”
Throughout her battle with the disease, Polaski and her family has received an outpouring of support – including more than 7,000 visitors to her page on caringbridge.org – and is confident her legacy will live on.
“Through it all, with whatever struggles there were, there was always a smile on her face,” Blair said. “She just had a great spirit.”