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Beloved swim coach dies
Blackman was recovering from back surgery

Stationed at the end of Greater Atlanta Christian's football stadium is the Freeman Aquatic Center.

The posh facility, dedicated in 2007, means plenty to the school's swimmers, but it also serves as a reminder of what longtime coach Karen Blackman built at the Norcross private school.

Blackman, who passed away suddenly Monday morning after complications from back surgery, put years of work into building the Spartans' swimming program to such a high level that the school responded with the new aquatic center to train its athletes.

"I don't know if anybody else could have done what she did, starting our swimming program from scratch, just because of how much she loved it," GAC Athletic Director Tim Vick said. "For years she would have practices wherever she could at whatever time she could get, sometimes 5 or 5:30 in the morning or late at night. It showed a lot that she would go off campus to try to build a tradition in that sport.

"She's brought the team from nothing to now, where they compete as one of the top (Class) AA schools in the state."

Blackman, who was diabetic, underwent back surgery last June and then had six subsequent back surgeries while fighting an infection. Family friends said she had worked her way into a wheelchair and seemed to be on the road to a recovery until Monday, when she passed away at about 5:45 a.m. They also said paramedics worked on her for nearly 30 minutes on Monday, but she died from what appears to be an embolism.

A 1976 GAC grad, Blackman lived with her mother Jane, also a longtime GAC faculty member. Neighbor and GAC academic support center employee Brenda Walker said the 53-year-old died in her mother's arms.

The two women shared a Lilburn home with Blackman's older sister Debbie, who died this past December. Jane Blackman's husband had died years ago.

Walker saw firsthand the impact of GAC's swim coach, but in another way. Blackman was one of the academic support center's most beloved tutors.

"It's remarkable how much she's left with her students," Walker said. "When she gets into your life, into your heart, you can't get rid of her. She sticks. She's wonderful and you just never want her to leave."

GAC plans a memorial service at the school's Long Forum at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. Friends and family visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. today.

Blackman was a standout basketball and softball player at GAC before attending Harding University (Ark.). She also was a renowned singer who was in the school chorus in both college and high school.

"She was one of those people who was good at everything," Walker said.

Following college, Blackman worked in Louisiana as a teacher and then left to work in private business. She returned to GAC as a tutor, mentoring countless students over the years.

A large group of her students gathered Monday to remember her, sharing some of their favorite memories.

"She was so incredible that I wrote a college essay about her," GAC student Ellen Begley said. "She was the strongest person I've ever known. She kept all of us in check. She called us her kids and she was my second mother."

In 1995, Blackman was charged with another quest at GAC - start a swimming program. She was a community coach until 1998, then was the head coach until her back surgery.

Since 1998, 10 of Blackman's teams has finished second or higher in AA at the state swim meet. Her 2002 boys and girls, her 2003 girls and her 2006 boys placed first among AA schools at state.

Even as her back began bothering her more, Blackman kept swimming with her students. When she became hospitalized, she missed the smell of the pool so her team members bottled up chlorinated pool water for her.

It was that love of swimming, Vick said, that made her so successful in building up GAC's program. But she cared even more about the students she coached and taught in the classroom.

"It's hard to find somebody like Karen, who had such a passion for her sport," Vick said. "She loved the kids and the feeling was mutual. They loved her."

GAC principals Scott Harsh and Misty Overman and vice president Bill Burton joined counselors Monday in meetings with grieving students who had just received the sad news.

"To say our hearts are broken is a vast understatement," GAC president David Fincher said in a school release. "And if ours are hurting, so will Karen's many students from swim and academic support. Please be in prayer for her mother, Jane, and support devastated children today. There will be pain, but there is joy in God's morning."