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Ironman family loses legend Bill Bell at 97

Bill Bell set the stage for older age group racing in triathlon.

The Ironman family mourns the loss of icon Bill Bell.

Cherie Gruenfeld, Bill Bell and Bob Babbitt celebrate Bell’s 96th birthday. Photo: Lee Gruenfeld

While many Canadians might not be familiar with Bill Bell, as they age up to older categories they will owe the Ironman legend a debt of gratitude. The Californian was a groundbreaker when it came to age group racing. In 1996, when he was 73, he became the oldest person to ever finish the Ironman World Championship in Kona and kept the streak going until his final Kona finish in 2001 when he was 78. After having a pacemaker put in in 2002 he gave Kona another go in 2004 at 81, but didn’t make it to the finish line due to leg cramps and a flat tire on the bike.

While Hiromu Inada has since gone on to become the oldest person to finish an Ironman at 86, it was Bell who paved the way for participation in older age groups in the sport. An engineer in the aircraft industry, Bell had tried to become a pilot in the military in his younger days, but never got accepted because of issues with his eyes and blood pressure. In his 50s the only exercise he got was walking the golf course – when he went for a physical and did a stress test he was sent off to see a cardiologist because his “every fourth beat there was a hiccup of some sort on the EKG machine,” he told Bob Babbitt.

He was told to start running for 40 minutes three times a week. He liked it and asked if he could do more. In 1980 he saw the Ironman World Championship on television and decided that he wanted to give that a shot. Two years later he was in Kona and over the next few decades he would complete 32 Ironman races, 19 of which were on the Big Island.


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The IRONMAN family lost a legend last night, Mr. Bill Bell at 97 years old. A very sad day for our Ohana. This photo is IRONMAN Australia 1998 when the cut off was 15 hours 30 minutes. Bill wrote on it saying “Mike, Sorry I’m always late, thanks for waiting”. This is what I wrote about Bill on page 143 in Finding My Voice. The annual IronGents and IronLadies dinner (in Kona) was started by Bill Bell, one of the true pioneers of late-age IRONMAN racing. During one of his races, IRONMAN California in Oceanside, we got a little worried because he hadn’t arrived at the finish line at the expected time. Then-president of IRONMAN North America Graham Fraser and a group of Marines went out on the course, found him, and practically dragged him in. After he crossed, he said, “Sorry I was so late Mike. Thanks for waiting.” The crowd heard it and laughed so loud that it became a running gag with Bill, who said it at every race. It was especially apt once in Kona when he came in around 1:30 in the morning, long after the cutoff. There were still people waiting for him, though, and he said it again. (Sorry Bill…I was long asleep by then!) RIP my friend. #IRONMAN #ironmanfoundation

A post shared by Mike Reilly (@ironmanvoice) on

When Bell started racing he was in his 60s. At most events the oldest age category was 65 to 69. When he turned 70, he started to ask race directors to add a 70 to 74 category. Then they needed to add a 75 to 79 category. Following in his footsteps, legends like Sister Madonna Buder and Lew Hollander would join Bell to force the creation of 80 to 84, 85 to 89 and 90+ age categories.

When he was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame, Bell offered these words of wisdom:

“I tell this to people all the time: you don’t have to swim two miles, do don’t have to do a marathon, you don’t have to ride a bike a hundred miles, but do something active. Keep the body moving.”

Bell used to regularly tell Mike Reilly, the Voice of Ironman, at finish lines “Sorry I was so late … Thanks for waiting.”

As someone who waited at more than a few finish lines to enjoy watching an inspirational Bill Bell finish, I can honestly say that it was absolutely our pleasure, Bill.