CorrespondentWhen Franke Bell was a teenager, her life’s goal was to marry baseball legend Ted Williams and have a dozen children.Now 80, Bell never married, “but I’ve had hundreds of children,” she said.Bell, a Gaston County native who now lives in east Charlotte, is senior coach of the Aquatic Team of Mecklenburg. ATOM is a competitive swim team that practices at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, made up of students age 7-18. Bell has held that position since the center opened in 1991.During her years as a coach, Bell has trained numerous national and world champion swimmers. The most recent was Doug Van Wie, who graduated from Myers Park High School in 2002. Van Wie broke a world record in the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay in 2007. In high school, under Franke’s training, Van Wie was the fastest swimmer in the country in the 200-meter backstroke for his age group.Bell also was the first trainer for Charlotte’s Olympic-gold-medal-winner Melvin Stewart, who won two golds in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and was undefeated in the 200-meter butterfly – his signature event – from 1989 to 1995. Bell began training Stewart when he was 8, and by 10 he had achieved national prominence, ranking among the top 10 in 16 events. Stewart later would honor Bell by putting one of his gold medals around her neck at a media event. (However, “I had to give the medal back,” Bell said.)Prior to her time with ATOM, Bell was aquatics director at the Johnston YMCA on North Davidson Street for 27 years, starting in 1957. At that time, the Y was run by Johnston Mills, and mill owner David Johnston had installed a pool because he wanted the mill children to learn to swim.Ironically, when Bell first took the job, she did so with the clear understanding that she would not run a swim team. “My background was in synchronized swimming and water ballet. I had no experience in coaching for competitive swimming,” Bell said.But the mill children had other ideas. They begged Bell to organize a team, and she finally relented. Her team found success right away. “The other Y’s were very jealous because we kept beating the socks off of their teams. And mill children weren’t supposed to do that,” Bell said. Soon, Bell’s program began producing state and national record breakers, and she began winning the North Carolina Coach of the Year Award on a regular basis. Today that award is known as the “Franke Bell Swimming Coach of the Year Award” in her honor. In 1989 she was inducted into the N.C. Swimming Hall of Fame. Even with her success, there is another aspect of Bell’s work she recalls most fondly. She has worked with disabled children throughout her career, using aquatics as a means of therapy. A devout Christian, Bell said that, as a teenager, she felt God calling her to work with those whom the Bible refers to as the “least of these.” “My first connection with the Johnston YMCA was when I asked David Johnston if I could use his pool to work with disabled children. I felt this was something the Lord wanted me to do, so I began to pray and ask God to help these kids,” Bell said. Her success with disabled children has been almost as dramatic as her success with world-record champions. A young child with a debilitating muscle disease was brought to Bell by his mother; the boy wasn’t expected to live past 6. As Bell worked with him, he gradually began to improve, and by age 8, almost all signs of the disease were gone. He went on to become a Baptist minister.Another success story was a teenage girl who had developed a large benign tumor in her leg. The tumor forced her to wear a brace, even while in the water.She also came to Bell for help. Although the tumor remained, the girl eventually regained complete use of her leg, free of the brace. She went on to attend Duke University. Bell’s own mobility is restricted these days because of post-polio syndrome, the recent result of a childhood bout with the disease. But she continues to keep her daily schedule of four hours a day, six days a week at the Aquatic Center. And she continues to find ways to work to improve the lives of “the least of these.” Most recently, she has started a program to provide free swimming lessons to some of the city’s refugee children. Bell now has other coaches who help her with the swim team’s training and program administration. One of those coaches, Shaynah Jarrell, has worked with Bell for seven years. As with others, Bell has been a mentor and an inspiration to her. “I could say so many things about Franke, but the thing that stands out the most is how to live a life of purpose. She has dedicated her life to helping others,” Jarrell said.
Friday, Nov. 23, 2012
Training young swimmers to be champions
Franke Bell, 80, still at pool 6 days a week
Olympic Gold Medalist Melvin Stewart honors his first swimming coach, Franke Bell, by placing one of his gold medals around her neck. Bell said, however, that “I had to give the meadl back.” COURTESY OF FRANKE BELL
Co-coach Shaynah Jarrell, left, confers with Franke Bell at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. STEVE PARKER
Franke Bell offers advice to her students concerning their strokes. STEVE PARKER
Learn more: For information on the ATOM swim team, visit www.atomswim.com.