Article image

by Lee Nessel

December 29, 2000

Pushing the boundaries of age

Sandra Neilson (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1986. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:

THE RECORD: 1972 Olympic gold (100-meter free) and two gold relays. Pan Am. Games: 1971 gold (100-meter free) and gold and silver relay. World records: three relays. One American record: (100-meter free) and three relays. A.A.U. Nationals: (100-yard free) and one relay. A.I.A.W. Championship: 1977 (50-yard and 100-yard free).

Matt Mann used to say, "So you won, but who'd you beat?" He could never say this to Sandra Neilson (USA), a triple gold medal winner in the 1972 Munich Olympics. In order to win the 100-meter freestyle, Sandy had to beat the favorites: the world's top woman swimmer Shane Gould (Australia) and the top American woman swimmer Shirley Babashoff. By winning the open 100, Neilson also got to anchor both American relays to world records and thus three gold medals when she was not supposed to win any. Such was the Olympic dream for a 16 year old high school sophomore.

Ironically, Sandra was repeatedly passed over for induction in the International Swimming hall of Fame because of the four year retirement rule, until, in August 1984, her coach, Texas sports psychologist Keith Bell, protested that she had actually retired for nine years. Sandy fully retired shortly after her 1972 Olympic triumph but decided to try Masters (Old Folks) swimming nine years later in 1981. When she won "all" in the 25-29 age group she decided to try big time senior swimming again at 28 and is already more than a second under her 1972 Olympic record time of 58.59 "I want to swim as fast as I can for as long as I can," says Neilson, who has only seemed to win the big ones in her long career. She has already changed the swimming world's thinking on what is old— move over Phil Niekro, Pete Rose, Walter Spence, and Arne Borg!

from Swim magazine

In 1996, Sandy Neilson-Bell graduated from the 35-39 to the 40-44 age group. But the transition did not prevent her from leaving a memento or two for the women she left behind—you know, something to remember her by: national records in the 50-yard (23.53) and 100-yard (51.54) freestyles. Newly installed in the older age bracket, she proceeded to lower the national marks in the same events to 24.29 and 53.57. In her most recent rewrite of the record book, she set world records in the 50 and 100-meter free for women 40-44 while competing at the U.S. Open in San Antonio in December. That brought her 1996 total to 12 national and five world records.

A triple gold medalist at the Munich Games in 1972, Neilson-Bell is most interested in what the future holds for her swimming career. A mother of four, she runs the company that publishes and markets her husband Keith Bell's books, and also does some motivational speaking. So, it's not surprising that she considers herself a part-time athlete. Still, as a nationally-ranked swimmer who competes at the U.S. Nationals, she devotes as much time as possible to her training. "I'm trying to keep in there with those kids and show them what a 40-year-old can do. It's something no one's ever done before, and it's exciting to be swimming at nationals at 40.

"I'm excited to see where my body can take me. We don't really know what you can do at 40 or 44 with your body." She cited Graham Johnston as an example of the numerous Masters who are faster now than when NCAA champions or Olympians.

Neilson-Bell calls her training partner-husband, who has not missed a day of swimming in 10 years, a good role model. "He has this streak going that I won't let him break."

Neilson-Bell's goal is to make Olympic Trials cut for the year 2000, and she doesn't discount her chance of making the Olympic team. "As 40-year-old athletes, we just don't know what we can do, and I feel like I can do so much more. You just never know."

published in SWIM magazine, March/April 1997


The Munich Olympics may best be remembered for its high and low points. On the high side, Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, all in world record times, and Olga Korbut dazzled millions in gymnastics. Among the low points were the controversial U.S. loss to the Russians in basketball and the favorite American 100-meter sprinters who missed their bus and were disqualified from their event.

But the lowest points, and ones which Neilson-Bell remembers most poignantly, were the acts of terrorism inflicted upon, and subsequent deaths, of the Israelis. "When we found out about the terrorists, I called my parents and told them I loved them," she says. "I thought I might never see them again." Huddled with swimmers Shirley Babashoff and Australia's Shane Gould in her Olympic Village room, Neilson and friends stayed up all night, listening to the news by radio and sweating through a bomb scare in her building.

Fortunately for Neilson, the nightmarish drama in Munich unfolded a day after the completion of the swimming events, where she excelled. In a matter of weeks, she had risen from the third-best American sprinter to Olympic gold medalist. Capturing the 100 free in a near-world-record time of 58.59 put her on the women's 400 free and 400 medley relays, which also won gold and set world records. "I felt wonderful," she recalls. The feeling of patriotism was overwhelming. When I arrived home in El Monte (Calif.), a big group of people welcomed me at the airport and honored me with a parade and a banquet."

To this day, Sandy's Olympic quest continues. Having resumed her swimming career after meeting her husband, Keith, in 1984, Sandy participated in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Trials. She missed qualifying for the 1996 Trials in the 50-meter free by a mere .09 seconds. Still, this past year on the 25-year anniversary of her first Nationals, United States Swimming attached Neilson-Bell's name to its Comeback Swimmer of the Year award, an honor she won in 1984.

by Scott Rabalais, published in SWIM magazine, May-June 1996

Sandy Neilson-Bell lives in Austin, Texas and swims for Texas Aquatics Masters.



  • Olympians