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Swimmer of Past in Wave of Future : Comeback: Thirty-plus Sandy Neilson-Bell seeks another Olympic medal, cash purses for swimmers.

January 18, 1990|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a joyous interlude in an otherwise tragic event. The Munich Olympics, forever remembered for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, also were the Games that brought swimmer Sandy Neilson's tears to millions of living rooms.

After upsetting world record-holder Shane Gould of Australia in the 100-meter freestyle, Neilson, then 16, climbed to the top step of the medal platform and waited for Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, to hang the gold medal around her neck.

And as she waited, she cried.

Half her lifetime later, Sandy Neilson-Bell is often reminded of that day. But now, the reminders are likely to be colored by a different kind of irony because Neilson-Bell has dedicated herself to erasing the last vestiges of the anachronistic amateurism the late Brundage had so long personified.

"Swimmers have always had to choose between swimming and making a living," Neilson-Bell says. "I want to help pave the way for other athletes to make a living from swimming; to help swimmers catch up with other sports."

It's an imposing task. When tennis players fought to turn professional, the battle divided the sport. When a maverick pack of distance runners challenged the amateur rules governing their sport, it took years of legal arguments to solve the issue. Toward their goal, Neilson-Bell and her husband have studied the processes by which such sports as track and field have permitted cash prizes.

"Sandy would like to see swimmers coming right out of college and getting paid. And she's got a point," says Ingrid Daland, director of the Daland Swim Center in Thousand Oaks and a former West German national swim champion. "The top West Germans are getting 1,200-1,600 marks (about $715-$950)a month. Even swimmers at just the national level get free transportation to events, free sweats . . . .

"Amateurism is out the door in Europe. Why should we have amateurism?"

The fact that a new era of athletic perestroika has taken root in Europe, dragging even the Olympic movement itself into the 20th Century, has convinced Neilson-Bell it's only a matter of time before U.S. swimming is forced to change.

Time is another concept Neilson-Bell has decided to challenge. Rather than trying to champion the idea of diving for dollars from afar, she is testing the waters herself as part of a comeback she hopes will lead to a berth on the 1992 Olympic team.

She'll be 36 then, and while thirtysomething might be a trendy age for television, for swimmers it conjures up images of rocking chairs and denture cream.

Consider:

* The 1984 U. S. women's swimming team was the oldest ever--with an average age of only 18 1/2.

* No U. S. swimmer older than 27 has ever won a gold medal, and that swimmer, Frances Schroth, got hers on a relay team in the 1920 Games, when the Olympics were little more than a dual meet between the United States and Great Britain.

* Before Neilson-Bell, no woman older than 30 had ever ranked among the top six in the world in any event.

Neilson-Bell isn't the only relative old-timer working toward a berth on the Olympic team. Mark Spitz, 39, who set seven world records in Munich, made a splash when he announced his comeback plans last fall.

But while Spitz's "grab" start once made him the quickest swimmer off the blocks, he hit the water second this time.

"Sandy came first," protests her husband, Keith Bell, a sports psychologist. "I don't know whether Mark noticed it or not, but Sandy paved the way."

It was Bell, a former Division III All-American swimmer at Kenyon (Ohio) College, who first convinced Neilson-Bell she wasn't washed up. The pair first met at a coaches' convention nearly eight years ago, where Bell had come to deliver a motivational talk. Later, they talked before a national Masters meet, where Bell brought up the idea of a serious comeback.

"He encouraged me to get back into it again," remembers Neilson-Bell, who lives in Ventura. "He said, 'I think you should go for '88.' Actually, he said he thought I could win (the Olympic Trials)."

Apparently, Bell was off by an Olympiad because if Neilson-Bell's comeback continues apace, she could enter the 1992 Trials as the favorite in the 50-meter freestyle. In 1984, she just missed qualifying for the Trials and four years later, she was a Trials finalist, finishing seventh in 26.04.

And although she missed the team to Seoul by .54 seconds, Neilson-Bell's time at the Trials was faster than some of the Olympic finalists'.

"Nobody in the world is as efficient in the water," Bell says. "She's got a perfect stroke." And while a perfect stroke might be bad news to some senior citizens, it's a priceless plus to a senior swimmer.

Experience, though, not form, could be Neilson-Bell's biggest asset.

"I personally believe you have an advantage in that you are training smarter," Daland says of older competitors. "You don't make excuses. You just do it.

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