The year was 1973, and the newly constructed, state-of-the-art YMCA on Fort Bragg Road was the talk of the town. Jim Lewis, the Y’s executive director, and Program Director Sandy Saunders were tasked with staffing the aquatics department. As fate would have it, a Terry Sanford High School junior, quite aptly named Gwen Poole, walked the short distance from campus down to the Y after class one day and inquired about a job. The two directors hired her on the spot. She promptly completed their training program and began her new position as swim instructor and lifeguard. What Lewis and Saunders did not know on that providential day in 1973 was that they were hiring a teenager for an after-school job who would go on to become a truly legendary Fayetteville aquatics instructor and would, over the next four and a half decades, teach thousands of local youngsters to swim.
Gwen Poole is now Gwen Bell, married to Fayetteville native Stewart Bell. She’s the mother of three adult children, and just this summer became a grandmother. Over her long career, Bell has worked in almost every capacity possible for an aquatic professional. From her time lifeguarding at the YMCA to serving as the aquatics director of The Sports Center, overseeing the indoor and outdoor pools at Fort Bragg, heading up the “Learn to Swim” program on post, teaching water aerobics to pregnant military personnel, and managing the pool at Highland Country Club, she’s just about done it all. But Bell is best known for her 30 years of teaching summer swim lessons to children in residential pools across Fayetteville. This seasonal arrangement allows her to devote the majority of her time to helping run the Bell family business, Bell’s Seed Store. Bell’s, an East Russell Street downtown fixture, is in its 101st year and fourth generation of family operation. To get on her list, you’d be wise to message her about a year in advance. She accepts students as young as 3, and begins with teaching water safety, familiarizing them with submerging their faces and helping them learn to glide, swim and float independently. She also works with older students on refining stroke and breathing techniques and learning basic lifeguarding skills.
It’s safe to say that what parents witness in a five-day span of lessons with her is often nothing short of amazing. I’ve dropped my own two flotation-device-dependent toddlers off with her on their first day of lessons and watched in awe on the last day, when parents are allowed to stay and observe, as my children confidently leapt from the diving board and front-stroked their way across the entire length of the swimming pool, all by themselves. In five one-hour-long sessions, she is able to impart a lifelong, lifesaving skill to children who are barely out of diapers.
“When I teach swimming lessons, I don’t let them quit, and I think my students respect me for that,” she said. “Children like structure and like to be pushed. By the end of our week together, I think we respect each other. The children know that I’m tough, but that I’m going to praise them; that I love them and want the best for them. They try because they know that I care. Even in six hours, we’ve built a relationship, and I really cherish that.”
Bell estimates that she’s taught swimming lessons to nearly 3,000 people. She is now teaching the children of some of her very first students. She can count 16 private pools where her sessions have taken place, and is grateful for the many families who have offered their backyards to her over the years. She reflects on her 47 years of teaching and marvels at the things that have changed. She remembers the early years when proud parents showed up on the last day of lessons, unzipped bulky black camcorders from their bags and hoisted them to their shoulders to record their little ones’ first solo laps. “Now my parents are there taking videos and pictures on their phones, and I don’t even know they’re doing it,” she said.
Although much has changed over the years, tradition remains on graduation day. Parents and siblings still crowd the poolside and watch with great anticipation as their students line up at the diving board. One by one, the children step onto the platform and wait for Mrs. Gwen to shout, “Go!” With newfound confidence, they leap off the end and meet the water below. Their little feet and arms propel them through the water as they concentrate on coming up for even breaths. When their hands meet the wall on the opposite side of the pool, their faithful teacher is there to meet them with a hug and a “You did it!” Let me tell you, it is really something to witness the look of pure joy and accomplishment on those small children’s dripping wet faces as they hoist themselves from the water and look back to see how far they’ve come.
“When a child takes swimming lessons, they’re learning, even at 3 or 4 years old, that when they face their fears and come out on the other side, they have overcome something that they were initially unsure about,” Bell said. “They’ve learned a new skill, and hopefully that they can always be brave enough to try.”