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Earl Holmes Bell of Jonesboro (Craighead County) is one of the most renowned U.S. men’s pole vaulters and coaches, a three-time Olympian, and five-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record holder. His achievements include setting the world’s outdoor record in 1976; qualifying for the Olympic Games in 1976, 1984 and 1988; and winning the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics. He was the U.S. national champion in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—a remarkable three-decade achievement for an athlete. After turning to coaching by founding Bell Athletics in Jonesboro, he was named the 1998 National Olympic Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 2004, Bell Athletics alone produced half of the U.S. Olympic pole-vaulting team.
Earl Bell was born on August 25, 1955, in Ancon, Panama Canal Zone, to William K. Bell and Yola Zimmerman Bell. His father was a medical doctor who had attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). Bell came from a pole-vaulting family and started vaulting in his back yard with homemade poles and pits almost from the time he could walk. The family moved to Jonesboro in 1960, and Bell entered Arkansas State University (ASU) in 1973, having been recruited by the ASU coach, Guy Kochel. He majored in accounting, graduating with a BS in 1988. At ASU, Bell distinguished himself early, as the 1975 ASU yearbook stated when looking back on the year’s athletic achievements: “Earl Bell, only a freshman last spring, was showing a lot of potential.”
Soon after that, he began collecting his twelve first-place championships, which include the NCAA Outdoor Pole Vault in 1975, 1976, and 1977; the NCAA Indoor Pole Vault in 1975 and 1976; the 1975 Pan American Games; the U.S. Outdoors in 1976, 1984, and 1990; and the U.S. Indoors in 1980, 1984, and 1987. Bell set the world record for men’s pole vault on May 29, 1976, at the U.S. Track and Field Federation (USTFF) meet in Wichita, Kansas, with a jump of 5.67 meters (18' 7.25"), which he held until Dave Roberts, also an American, jumped 5.70 meters the following month.
Bell qualified for his first Olympic Games in 1976 at Montreal, where he finished in sixth place on a rain-soaked track. The U.S. government prohibited American athletes from participating in the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow after the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan, but Bell set the American record for pole vault in his jump of 5.80 meters (19' 0.25") in San Jose, California, on June 9, 1984. That summer, the Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles, California. There, Bell tied for the 1984 bronze medal for third place after vaulting 5.60 meters (18' 4.5"). Upon his return to his home town that year, Jonesboro honored him by rededicating the city’s community center in his name.
Bell kept adding to his accolades, winning the bronze medal in the 1986 Goodwill Games held in Moscow and the silver medal in the 1987 World Indoors; he just missed another Olympic medal by taking fourth place in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. He is still listed in the top twenty Millrose Games athletes who scored four or more Millrose victories, with his six wins topping such legends as Glenn Cunningham, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Carl Lewis.
In the fall of 1991, Bell founded and constructed Bell Athletics in Jonesboro. Located in an indoor facility at 4916 Highway 226, it quickly became a mecca for pole vaulters. Bell’s subsequent success as an instructor was spotlighted when he was named the 1998 National Olympic Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee, a recognition which is particularly remarkable considering that he coaches a single event. Bell was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2002.
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Bell Athletics alone produced half of the U.S. Olympic pole vault team. He presently works with Olympians Jeff Hartwig and Derek Miles, as well as his father, current Masters World record holder (eighty to eighty-five years old) “Grandpa” William Bell.
Soon after Bell Athletics opened, the first camp for young people was held and reached the maximum number of registrations. It is currently considered one of the top athletic training facilities in the world for both athletes and young people, with the number of participants (in what is known nationally as “Bell Camp”) limited so that each will receive personal attention from Bell himself. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote that Bell “inspired and trained a generation of vaulters and put the sport on the map in the minds of many Arkansans.”
Earl Bell has three children—Drew, Sam, and Henry—and resides in Jonesboro.
For additional information:Bell Athletics. http://www.bellathletics.com (accessed June 11, 2014).
“Earl Bell.” USA Track and Field. http://www.usatf.org/HallOfFame/TF/showBio.asp?HOFIDs=14. (accessed June 11, 2014).
Nancy HendricksArkansas State University
Last Updated 6/11/2014
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