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Keith Bell Makes Swimming Fun

Started four Masters teams in Austin

Mike Butts | July 19, 2000

Dr. Keith Bell has been totally immersed in swimming most of his life. His contributions to swimming have been numerous and varied. A competitive swimmer from age eight, Bell was an All-American swimmer at Kenyon College and today is one of the most avid Masters swimmers.

The father of swimming psychology, Dr. Bell is internationally recognized as the foremost expert on performance enhancement in swimming. He has made, and continues to make, unique and valuable contributions to our sport. Bell has worked directly with over 400 teams and over 15,000 athletes worldwide—and thousands more, in and out of the swimming world, have utilized and been helped by his eight books and more than 80 published articles. His books have been translated into at least four different languages and he has been a featured speaker with Australian Coaches, Canadian Coaches, the Japanese Coaches Association, the British Swim Coaches Association as well as the American Swim Coaches Association. He has also been a regular columnist for national swimming publications such as, Swimmers, Swimmers Coach, SWIM, and Swim Texas magazine.

Keith has been the sports psychologist for U.S., Canadian, Australian, Hong Kong, Fiji, Cayman Islands and New Zealand Olympic and National Teams and has aided top-ranked swimmers throughout the world. He has literally, through his works as a sports psychologist alone, directly influenced more athletes and coaches than any other swimming professional, teacher or coach, ever.

SUPERMAN AT FIFTY

excerpted from the Dec.1998 issue of "The Good Life"

A day after Austin's worst flood in seven years and water is on everybody's mind. But not in this context:

The parking lot at Deep Eddy Pool, normally crammed with cars on summer days, has but eight vehicles. A waning sprinkle from the rain that devastated the area the day before falls on the coolest morning in months. The pool's lifeguard wears a yellow rain slicker. And only two ardent lap swimmers make their way across the lane-roped deep end.

Soon they'll be joined by Keith Bell, who will make them look slow and lazy. Bell tends to make everybody look slow and lazy. He hasn't missed a day of swimming in ten years and I've agreed to join him for his umpteenth day in a row of cruising through the water. I'm keeping up with Bell, age fifty—six years older than I am—pretty well—and then we get in the water.

Bell has lapped me about ten times in ten minutes. I decide to try to keep up with him for just one length of the pool. I sprint all out and do it. But, at the end of the length I stop and hang on the deck, winded, while Bell swims on and on at the same pace.

Flood or no flood, water is often on Keith Bell's mind. He has found solace, joy, adventure and life in the water.

Is Keith Bell obsessed? Maybe. He trains like an animal everyday, beginning with a hundred pushups and more than a hundred sit-ups. He lifts weights every third day and he swims laps with incredible fervor no matter what the weather or what country, city or state he's in.

But maybe it takes a little obsession to be the champion Bell is and, if it is obsession, it's a very calculated one. Bell decided a long time ago he wanted to swim for "fitness, health and cosmetic" reasons. He decided he would make it fun and make it as much of a life-enhancing experience as he could. Along the way he's become the founder of Masters swimming clubs in Austin, one of the top U.S. Masters swimmers of all time, and an accomplished sports psychologist, author and coach.

"If I can just trip along in his wake I'm doing great," says Bell's wife, three-time Olympic gold medalist Sandy Neilson-Bell . "It's fun doing things with him because he likes it."

Bell has a salt-and-pepper, full crest of hair and a mustache to match. He speaks calmly and quietly about swimming, competition and choices. It is best not to use the words "boring" or "mental" when talking with him of the sport about which he has written five books.

"I guess you can make anything boring," Bell says. "There're people who find sex boring. I decided if I was going to swim I was going to make it really fun, and I've gotten very skilled at making it fun. I've taken care to make it a really rich experience."

Swimming may not be quite so rich an experience for Bell's competitors. Bell has won 76 U.S. Masters championships and set over 39 U.S. Masters records. He has won two Masters world championships. But perhaps his premier accomplishment in the water was placing sixth against a bunch of twenty-somethings in the U.S. Swimming National Long Distance Championships in the 15,000-meter freestyle. At the time he was one week shy of his forty-seventh birthday.

Which brings up a phenomenon in swimming which Bell personifies: older swimmers swimming as good or better times in their forties, fifties and sixties than they swam in their twenties. Bell says it's unusual but not rare. It's because the swimmers have a different concept of what's fast. A time considered fast twenty-five years ago may be only average today.

A good example of that, says Bell, is Jeff Farrell , who was the fastest freestyler in the world at age twenty in the nineteen-fifties and swam almost as fast in Masters competition at age sixty-two this year. Bell believes much of what we think of as aging is in reality neglect.

"There's a lot about aging that we don't know," Bell says. "We think there's a lot of things that are natural with aging that really come from disuse. One researcher says we can maintain muscle mass with exercise until we are 65 and he's not sure what happens after that."

"I work with a lot of kid’s teams and I'm forever telling them there's an awful lot they can learn from watching the Masters swimmers. They just need to open their minds up to the idea they can swim a lot faster than they think they can."

The Austin Masters community, which numbers in the hundreds of swimmers, owes its real beginning to Bell. He has started four Masters swimming teams in Austin that are still active, including Austin's first Masters team, now called Texas Aquatics Masters. And, he started two other Masters teams out of state. He makes his living as a sports psychologist for individual athletes (whom he wishes not to name) and for national swim teams from around the world. He will accompany the Canadian swimming team up to and through the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But, Bell is no swim nerd. A natural athlete, he may have been a better baseball player than swimmer. While in graduate school, after being freed from the restraints of a college coach who didn't want his swimmers playing other sports, he happily indulged in touch football, basketball, tennis, golf, racquetball and handball. He thought it funny that his touch football mates complained of fatigue after two-hour games. He would go off and play a couple sets of tennis.

Still, he missed the deep tiredness that only swimming could bring.

"I missed that feeling that you get when you're swimming where you feel it everywhere," Bell said. "It's a really nice kind of fatigue."

Unlike other sports and forms of exercise, swimming has almost no risk of injury. You can train as hard as Bell, or try to, and not worry about wrecking a knee or an elbow.

In swimming, Bell has found himself. “It's about choices,” he says—“whether or not to train, whether or not to train hard or hang back, whether to be bored or not.”

"You come face to face with how to make tough choices and you come face to face with your decision making processes, dealing with fears, dealing with competition," Bell says. The decisions he's made have put him in the pantheon of the sport.

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