Dr. Keith Bell: Swimming in the Fountain of Youth
photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
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Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the stroke. Right…left. Right…left. Stay steady and keep pushing. Get ready to flip. Now turn.
Day in and day out, for no less than an hour at a time, this is the abbreviated routine Dr. Keith Bell puts his mind and body through, slicing through the tepid lap pool at Deep Eddy off Lake Austin Blvd. Amazingly enough, this world-renowned sports performance expert and local swimming icon has been doing it every day for as far back as he can remember.
“Okay, I think I missed a day in the 80s,” he sheepishly admits. The crazy thing is that he’s not joking.
Whatever you want to call Bell’s quotidian fitness routine (as he often refers to it), over the years it’s become more than a superstitious streak or a lesson in raw willpower. In many ways, swimming is the daily ritual that has come to define him.
“I guess you might call swimming every day for more than 20 years a fitness accomplishment, but I don't really think of fitness in terms of accomplishments,” he says. “Swimming is just a given part of my day – I eat, sleep, drink and swim every day. It's part of what I do to stay alive, healthy and fit.”
In fact, about 10 years ago when Bell underwent knee surgery, his doctors implored him to take a rest from his favorite water activity. As he humorously recounts it, they should have known who they were dealing with. Then maybe they would have realized the futility of their request.
“I just couldn’t miss a day,” he recalls. “I swam the morning right before my surgery and was back in the pool the next day. Swimming was so much better for my body and my recovery than sitting around in a chair or laying with my leg propped up all day.”
When Bell returned for his check-up just 10 days post-surgery, his doctors were amazed by the quick recuperation. A week earlier, what had been a bruised and stitched-up leg, was now a pristine, healthy-looking limb. Everything was healing faster than the doctors, or Bell, could have imagined. “After seeing my leg, they joked that all future patients were going to the pool right after surgery,” he says.
In His Element
A few years ago, we had the chance to visit with Bell in his home, meet his extraordinary wife Sandy Neilsen Bell (a three-time Olympic gold medalist herself, by the age of 16) and learn more about the man widely considered to be one of swimming’s most influential sports psychologists.
Bell’s easy-going personality and soothing, soft-spoken demeanor instantly took us by surprise, as did his almost mystifying youthfulness. Just shy of 60 at the time, he barely looked to be in his 40s, yet his résumé of professional accomplishments read like a novel.
Having coached some 400 teams and more than 15,000 athletes in his career, Bell also has published nine books on sports psychology and consulted with half a dozen Olympic swim teams on ways to win, both in and out of the pool. Without question, he is the foremost expert on how to keep elite swimmers pushing themselves in their sport, both mentally and physically…and to have fun doing it.
“Although I've always enjoyed it, I've become extremely skilled at making training fun,” he says.
We definitely caught a glimpse of this during our first meeting, but it wasn’t until we met up with Bell a few weeks ago at his second home — the Deep Eddy pool — where we got to see his training style firsthand. This time around he wasn’t coaching a local athlete or a master’s swim team; he was applying years of expertise to his own daily routine.
“When I decided to swim for health and fitness, I decided that if I was going to swim, I was going to make it fun,” he says. “Keeping it fun makes it easy to stay consistent. For me, swimming is just a wonderful part of each day.”
Watching Bell dive in with flawless form, gliding effortlessly through the water lap after lap and rarely taking a break, we realized why he was the first man over age 45 to ever place in a USS National Championship. It also hinted as to why he still looks so young.
As he spryly popped out of the pool, the conversation immediately turned to his favorite pastime; the one subject Bell has no problem talking about, writing about or for that matter, doing. Yes, you guessed it: swimming.
“Well, it’s not a secret, but my philosophy of life is: You can't let working for a living get in the way of your swimming,” he says. “Swimming just does the trick, and for me, competitive swimming is huge. By setting and striving to attain challenging competitive goals and setting and striving to attain training goals in order to reach my competitive goals, I stay significantly more fit.”
As we learned that day, one of Bell’s more competitive goals is a mind-boggling birthday present to himself.
“Every year I swim my age in 100s,” he explains rather dryly. “My son flies in and a bunch of friends come and join me and the family.”
Yes, you read that right. Having just turned 62 last month, Bell spent his most recent birthday swimming more than 180 laps in the Deep Eddy pool. All in about an hour and half no less.
“I guess there are times when my swimming takes me away from my family, but it’s often the other way around,” he says. “Swimming is something we do together. I believe that one of the best gifts you can give your children is a healthy parent.”
So, after all his years of coaching, training and probing the athletic mind, could spending just a few hours in the pool every day be the closest thing to a real fountain of youth? Bell doesn’t seem to flinch at the thought.
“Health is definitely a high priority, and fortunately swimming is my passion and my lifeblood,” he says. “I don't think anything is better for health than swimming.”