The local swimming community is hoping to give long tenured swim coach, Albert ‘Bert’ Bell, his “flowers,” while he can smell them.
A committee of parents and former pupils of Bell’s have come together to form a petition seeking to honor the beloved instructor by having a major road on Grand Bahama named in Bell’s honor.
Bell, who is currently in his 70’s, has coached a number of local swimmers who have gone on to compete at the highest level of swimming, for decades. Described as a “pioneer,” of the sport here on the island by the YMCA’s Executive Director Karon Pinder-Johnson, Bell, along with several others, were instrumental in starting the “Learn to Swim,” program at “The Y.”
Pinder-Johnson shared that Bell had a passion for the inner-city youth and desired to help those who may not have had the means to take swim lessons.
“Mr. Bell wanted to see the children from the inner city or children who normally would not be able to afford a swim lesson, be given the opportunity to swim. Thus, the school “Learn to Swim,” was formed,” she noted.
The Executive Director added: “We’re not talking a few years ago, we are talking many years ago. In fact, the pool here was constructed in 1967 and it was donated by the late Sir Charles Hayward as a result of Jack Hayward starting the YMCA.
“When this idea came about, teaching swimming at the YMCA, Mr. Bell jumped on board right away because he wanted those inner-city kids, from Eight Mile Rock, Hawksbill, “Back of Town,” to have an opportunity to learn how to swim.
“They started that program with Mr. Bell’s involvement.”
Once that foundation was set, Bell and others started a competitive swim club. Pinder-Johnson furthered that swimming is not a sport where a disenfranchised child would frequently be seen competing. But with Bell having a keen eye for seeing talent, he helped many of them to realize the talent in themselves.
“He was able to take some of those kids out of Eight Mile Rock to be a part of the YMCA’s swim club and thus went on to be very productive citizens of The Bahamas. From there, Mr. Bell
started Freeport Aquatics Club and because of his desire for every Grand Bahamian to have the same opportunity that club grew successfully and produced world-class swimmers.
“Honoring him in this way is just an opportunity for us to give Mr. Bell his flowers while he’s alive. We’d like to see more than just the parents’ involvement with honoring him. We would like to see a highway named after him so that name can resonate every time someone takes a drive.
“We want to invite the Grand Bahama community and all those people who may have passed through the hands of Mr. Bell to sign that petition because it gives us power to say to the relevant authorities that we would like for him to be remembered now, while he’s alive, and long after.”
The petition can be signed at www.change.org/streetnameformrbell. The idea for honoring Bell in this manner was sparked by Sharonette Norville-Smith, who offered aid to Bell in his time of need.
Vereance Burrows is one of Bell’s former students, who went on to compete in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and many other elite level competitions. Burrows is a four-time national record holder and became a bronze medalist at the Central American and Caribbean Games in 2010 in the 50-meter butterfly.
Burrows was just five years old when he joined the Freeport Aquatics Club under Bell’s coaching. Burrows shared a brief story that summed up Bell’s commitment to ensuring that his swimmers were diligent and committed to perfecting their craft.
“I was about maybe seven or eight years old when I tried to skip practice one Saturday morning. My dad knocked on my door and told me someone was outside honking their horn and said it was for me.
“I went outside and saw that Mr. Bell had the entire swim team loaded up on the back of his truck honking the horn and telling me to come outside, it’s time for practice.
“He drove me and the whole team to practice and dropped me all the way home after that. I learned to never skip practice or he’s going to wake up the whole neighborhood and have some parents upset at 6:00 a.m.
“That’s the kind of dedication to the sport he had and that’s the discipline he instilled in a lot of us. Pretty much 100 percent of Grand Bahama’s Olympians swam for Mr. Bell at one point. He has a very high percentage of world-class swimmers that came through his program and that type of discipline he instilled in us allowed us to reach these heights.
“This is a good opportunity to give him his flowers while he’s still alive and I’d like to reach out to the community as well, as he’s approaching his older age we want to set up a fund or donation.
If you’d like to assist that can be given to the YMCA and we’d coordinate that it gets to Mr. Bell to help him into his retirement.”
Alana Dillette, a Grand Bahamian who also joined Burrows on The Bahamas’ 2008 Olympic team was also a student of Bell’s. As an athlete who made it to the highest levels of competition, Dillette attributed her success to the coaching and dedication Bell displayed with his students.
“I started with him at a very young age and I honestly don’t remember when he wasn’t in my life as a swim coach. From the many mornings he would come in the front of my house and beep his horn to make sure I got to practice, he taught me commitment, discipline, grit and all of the things that make you a well-rounded athlete and a well-rounded person.
“I managed to use those qualities now, even today in my life in my role as a professor. I know Mr. Bell had that effect on so many people beyond me. He was an educator, a leader, a friend, a coach in our community.
“So many of the things that are Grand Bahamian, like the BASRA meet, our Conchman Triathlon, Mr. Bell was at the helm of those things. I think this naming project is very important for us to, as a community, come together behind a person who did so much for all of us.
“It’s important for his legacy to be permanent. I hope everyone throughout the community will consider this,” she concluded.