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Farragut’s Bell Olympics bound?

Never one to quit, Eric Bell was battling severe leg cramps at the worst possible time. They hit while participating in the national triathlon championships at Kansas City, Mo., in July among some 1,700 participants, amateur and professional.

In addition to the physical pain it was mentally agonizing for Bell, a former University of Tennessee and Farragut High School champion distance runner: his chance to qualify as a member of the U.S. team for the Amateur World Championships in Leusane, Switzerland, Sept. 1-3, was all but lost.

He had to finish in the top 16. It seemed impossible — and sad, because if healthy Bell would likely have easily


But not too sad.

“That race was mainly a test of will and determination,” Bell said less than an hour before taking off from McGhee-Tyson Airport Aug. 29 for Switzerland and the AWC event after finishing 16th and squeaking by to make the 16-man USA Triathlon Amateur Team.

Labeling it a “fluke” cramp, “I got a cramp on the bike [25-mile event with a 6.2 mile run ahead]. I had never really had a cramp in a race before, and thought, ‘Well, maybe it’ll go away,’” Bell said. “It never went away, and I got to the run, which is my specialty, and really thought about dropping out of the race. I just persevered and finished. When you finish you don’t know what place you’re in until the times come out. I looked at my time. I was lucky.

“I had never given up in a race and I wasn’t about to [then],” added Bell, who only began as a triathlete in April after first starting to train in January. “I went there with high expectations, but sometimes things happen in races and you have to figure out a way get through the adversity and challenge yourself to keep going when things are down.

“When I finished I was pretty disappointed, pretty upset. I just thought it was bad luck, a bad day, a lesson learned, learn from it and move on.”

About 45 minutes after the race, Bell’s bitter dejection turned to elation.

“I was like, ‘Wow, how lucky do I feel?’” Bell said about his reaction after hearing the results. “I was elated, and proud of myself for not giving up. I could have easily bagged it and said, ‘I’m done for today.’ I was pretty proud. I fought through, kept fighting.”

As for representing his country, “I’ve dreamed about it my whole life, to put on a U-S-A uniform and represent this country,” Bell said. “That’s what you dream about in every athletic endeavor. It’s an honor to do it. Just go out and do my best and give it all I got and let the chips fall where they may.

“If you’d told me six month ago I’d be flying to Switzerland and competing for the U-S on the amateur team in your first year, after my first [qualifying] race I’d probably laughed and said, ‘no way,’” Bell added.

As for the Switzerland course, “There’s a pretty strong hill in our course,” Bell said. “It will be hilly.”

Bell began his triathlon career with the TriDeltaThon at UT in April, finishing second-place overall among what he estimated to be about 300 participants.

“I started doing triathlons in April, and basically qualified for this team in only my fourth triathlon,” Bell said. “This is my seventh triathlon ever, so to go and be international and do this — the whole thing, from planning and packing and flying over there with your bike and everything, is really an experience,” he said. “The learning curve is huge, I’m learning every day.”

To qualify for nationals, Bell finished sixth among more than 100 in the 25-to-30 age group — 27th overall from a field of about 1,300 — during a regional event last summer in Memphis. “It was kinda my first major triathlon,” Bell said.

One week after he qualified for the USA team, Bell finished fifth overall “and beat three pros” at The Waterfront Triathlon in Chattanooga, a southeastern regional championship featuring a field of about 1,000.

Currently a West Knoxville resident, Bell, 27, said he is trying to turn pro. “There’s some qualifying standards to turn pro,” he said. “There’s like three legs that you have to compete, and I’ve done one of those legs.”

In addition to the 25-mile bike race and 6.2-mile run, the standard “Olympic distances” according to Bell begins with a one-mile swim. Not surprisingly, Bell said running was his specialty.

Bell was Class AAA state champion in the 1,600-meter run during his senior season at FHS in 1998 before going on to success at UT as a 5K specialist (14:18 career best), twice qualifying nationally while earning All-Southeast Region honors.

Upon graduating UT in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in speech and communications, “I went out in the real world and got a job and thought that’s what I needed to do, yet in the back of my mind there was always an itch to do more [running],” Bell said. “There was always that voice inside, ‘why don’t you try it?’ And all of a sudden I got a coach from Nashville and I just decided let’s give it a go, give it your all. I put my heart and soul into it.

“In January I finally said, ‘Let’s get after it,’ and that’s when I went and got a coach,” Bell added. “At first I faced a lot of fears, a lot of challenges and I was learning a lot about myself. I’m very gracious for this opportunity.

As for other triathlon goals, “There’s the dream of always being on the Olympic team, qualifying for the Olympic team,” Bell said. “The good thing about triathlons is, the older you get the better you get. ... And one day I hope to be in Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships.

“Of course I want like to turn pro, that’s kinda a short-term goal, and get some sponsors, and I’d like to make a profession out of this if that’s possible.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Bell said he would continue seeking his master’s degree in sports psychology at UT.


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