Sandy Neilson

Sandra Lynn Neilson (born March 20, 1956), also known by her married name Sandy Bell, is an American former competition swimmer, three-time Olympic gold medalist, and former world record-holder.

Sandy Neilson
Shirley Babashoff and Neilson (right)
at 1972 Olympics
Personal information
Full nameSandra Lynn Neilson
National teamUnited States
Born (1956-03-20) March 20, 1956
Burbank, California
Height5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)
Weight139 lb (63 kg)
ClubEl Monte Aquatic Club
College teamUniversity of California, Santa Barbara

Amateur career

Neilson won her only Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championship in 1971 in the 100-yard freestyle. While a student at El Monte High School, Neilson set CIF Southern Section records in 1972 for both the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle events.[1] She later attended University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was a member of the UCSB Gauchos swim team and a three-time All-American. In 1977, she won both the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle national championships.

1972 Summer Olympics

Despite being ranked as the third-best American swimmer, Neilson participated in the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany at the age of 16. In the 100-meter freestyle, Neilson defeated heavy favorites Shane Gould from Australia and her American teammate Shirley Babashoff in an Olympic record time of 58.59 seconds. The victory landed her a spot on the 4×100-meter freestyle relay with Babashoff as well as the 4×100-meter medley relay. Both of Neilson's relay teams won gold medals in world record times.[2]

In a twist of fate, during the Munich massacre which took place after the day after the swimming events were completed, both Gould and Babashoff were huddled with Neilson in her Olympic Village while the massacre was taking place. Neilson recalled, "When we found out about the terrorists, I called my parents and told them I loved them. I thought I might never see them again."[3]

Post-Olympic life

Neilson met her current coach and husband, Dr. Keith Bell, a Texas sports psychologist, in 1984. Bell successfully argued in August 1984 to the International Swimming Hall of Fame that Neilson had been "retired" for nine years, despite still participating in United States Masters Swimming. This made her eligible under the ISHOF's four-year retirement requirements and Neilson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.[2][4]

Neilson participated in the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials. She missed qualifying for the 1996 Trials in the 50-meter freestyle by a mere nine one-hundredths (0.09) of a second.[3]

In 1996, Neilson was the first swimmer over 40 to be ranked top 25 in the world in an event (50-meter freestyle) and the first swimmer over 40 to compete in U.S. National Championships, at which she was honored by having USA Swimming's comeback award named after her, the "Sandy Neilson-Bell Comeback Swimmer of the Year Award".[3]

See also


  1. CIF-Southern Section. "CIF-Southern Section All Sports Press Guide And Record Book" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on August 4, 2012. Retrieved August 18, 2012.
  2., Olympic Sports, Athletes, Sandy Neilson. Retrieved June 14, 2015.
  3. Lee Nessel (December 29, 2000) ISHOF Honor Swimmer Sandra Neilson. US Masters Swimming.
  4. International Swimming Hall of Fame, Honorees, Sandra Neilson (USA). Retrieved June 14, 2015.
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