Cathy Breslaw's Installation

Cathy Breslaw's Installation
Cathy Breslaw's Installation:Dreamscape

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Bill Bell, Triathelete, Marathoner, Aircraft Executive - Story about the Power of the Human Spirit

Bill Bell's story is one of the power of the human spirit, about the ability to see past our own boundaries, our own limits, to achieve things we thought were not possible - Isn't that what art is about?  Stretching ourselves into previously unknown places within and outside ourselves? To test new avenues, new ways of thinking about subjects, objects and philosophies? And, to keep going even when we fail over and over to create our desired results? Then, sometimes, creating something fantastic?

Bill Bell dragged himself on hands and knees across the finish line at the Kona Hawaii Ironman competition. It was midnight - 2 minutes and 41 seconds past the 17 hour deadline, completing a day of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running a full marathon – 26.2 miles all consecutively. Though disappointed he didn’t finish in the allotted time, Bell commented “I didn’t see it as a failure, only a setback, adding “Finishers are winners.” What makes this event even more poignant is the fact that he did this race when he was 77 years old. In 2000, the following year, he earned the title World Champion, finishing first in the 75-79 year old age group.

Bell, who started competing in these races at 59 years old, has completed over 300 triathalons of varying lengths, including 32 ironman, and 41 half Ironman races. He placed first in five Kona Ironman races in his age bracket. He has also competed in races in Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand. His race experience extends to having completed 158 marathons, and 3 ultraman 3 day triathalons, which consists of a 6 mile swim, 250 mile bike 52.4 mile run, placing first in his age group in two of those races.  In a race called the “World’s Toughest Triathalon” held in Lake Tahoe, Bell finished first in his age group 3 times – at 6500’ altitude, where he swam 2 miles, biked 100 miles and ran18.6 miles. 

It’s plain to see that Bell is a driven man - his tremendous spirit and determination is born from a
childhood of many challenges.  When we met for this interview, Bell told me story after story of a family in LA in the 1920’s with no money - how his father was a professional gambler who was often away and how they moved often because of problems meeting the rent each month. When he was a boy, his mom would save up the 10 cents needed for a quart for milk. Bell described his mother as the person whose strength knit his family together.  She taught him and his brother solid values and supported the family by working long hours as secretary to the president of the Brown Shoe Company. Bill's mom had children late in life, and at 60 years of age, had a tough time finding work.

Though the family was poor, his mother made sure he and his brother learned an instrument.  Bell learned the trumpet and his brother the saxophone. They prayed at the Baptist church nearby and were enrolled in Boy Scouts.  The skills they learned with instruments earned them gigs in Hollywood Legion Bands, and they were sometimes hired as extras on movie sets. Bell also worked several paper routes. His father died when Bell was 14 years old so the need for money increased which meant he had to work more hours and wouldn’t be able participate in high school sports.

Bell tried to become a pilot in the military several times but was denied because of various issues with eyesight and blood pressure.  He went to work for Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed who were hiring during the war years. Bell also took classes at UCLA and LA City College at night in math and engineering, subjects he was interested in and ones that he thought would earn him better jobs.  At Lockheed, Bell designed tools and fixtures to manufacture aircraft parts. Simultaneously he got jobs in bands on movie sets – even working with famous screen actors like Betty Davis and Jack Benny. When he was 22 years old, Bell met Margie, his wife-to-be, and they were later married and had 3 daughters.

As his skills in designing and engineering metal parts increased, Bell became more ambitious and represented several aircraft parts companies as a Sales and Marketing Engineeer. He also worked for Northrup and Hughes Aircraft. Eventually he worked toward having his own company with partners. As the years went on, Bell designed fasteners, bolts, pilot seats and other equipment for the airline industry and worked with NASA durng its early beginnings in the 1960’s.   He and his wife built a home in Palos Verdes where they raised their family and he also sold real estate. He retired in 1989 when he and his partner sold their company to IPECO, an international company making pilot seats and other products for the airline industry.

Bell has approached his athletic career with the same spirit and persistence as his work career. He attributes his success to his mother who instilled in him a ‘can do’ attitude and advised ‘never give up’. He got into running when he was in his early 50’s and his doctor told him he had an irregular heartbeat. The doctor’s advice was for him to jog 40 minutes a day three times a week. He enjoyed it so much, and with his doctors approval, he began to train for marathons. While returning from a marathon overseas and a stopover in the Waikiki airport, Bell met a man with an ‘Ironman’ t-shirt. When Bill asked what that was, the man told him about it and said ‘get a bike and start swimming’. He took that advice to heart and has never stopped since – that was over 30 years ago.  As a result of all his triathalon successes, Bell has been featured on many news and talk show programs over the years including ESPN, CBS news, Tom Snyder, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill O’Reilly and Conan O'Brien.

Bell’s training regimen is highly disciplined.  He gets up daily at 4:00 am, and runs, bikes and swims in some combination everyday. He also works out with weights and performs core exercises. At the peak of his training for Ironman races, Bell was swimming 6-8 miles per week, and biking 200-300 miles per week. He commented that his goal was always to finish and with the hope that sometimes he’d cross the line in first place – and that he did.  In addition to the races already mentioned, Bell also placed first in several Rough Ocean Water Swims, and eight times for his age group in the ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ 1.5 mile swim, 20 mile bike and 14 mile run and participated in two ‘ Four Man Bike Across the USA” events, each achieved in 7-9 days.
Bill finishing the Carlsbad Triatthalon, July 14, 2013

Today, at 91 years of age, Bell admits that training for triathalons is a challenge and that though he doesn’t do as many races as he’d like, he will continue to finish as many as he can. In 2012, Bell received the All American Award for the 2012 Triathalon Races from the USA Triathalon Association.
If you want to follow Bill's progress, his next triathlon is September 8th in Malibu. September 8th is a special occasion for Bill as it is his 67th wedding anniversary - he lost his wife this past year.

Bill Bell has set the bar very high for the rest of us – his example challenges us –with faith in the power of possibilities, self discipline and an elevated human spirit, we can all cross that finish line.

Article written by Cathy Breslaw:

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful article about my dad! Thanks for sharing his story.