Humility and Serendipity

Photo credit to Bobby Ellis

Greg Bell was once known as the world’s greatest long jumper. Almost 60 years ago, he received the gold medal in long jump at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Now at the age of 81, Bell resides with his wife Mary in Logansport, Ind., the only state he has ever lived in.

He is the head of dentistry at Logansport Hospital. He is a husband and father. He is a sketcher, a woodworker, an author, a gardener, a poet, and perhaps most importantly, a motivational speaker. Bell’s athletic career only lasted a fraction of his lifetime, just like the champion title is only one fraction of his personality.

“I am tremendously proud of my Olympic gold medal,” Bell said as he retrieved his medal from the back of a desk drawer. “But if that’s all I had to show after 81 years of living, that’s not very much at all.”

Bell broke into the track & field scene first by breaking every long jump record set before him. He beat all records at Garfield High School. After high school, he was enlisted in the military and won first place at the European Championship for the Armed Forces. During his studies at Indiana University between 1955 and 1958, Bell was the highest ranked long jumper in the world. And at the age of 26, he earned the gold medal for long jump at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

He competed alongside and socialized with world-class athletes like Jorma Valkama and Muhammad Ali. He was the fifth man in the world to jump 26 feet. His NCAA, Indiana University, and high school long jump records have held for almost half his lifetime. He was the first long jumper to be inducted into the Track & Field Hall of Fame. He achieved all of this when racial tensions in the United States were still high.

And yet, Bell still looks on his athletic career with humility, He is still surprised to see his face on celebratory banners that line the streets in his hometown of Terre Haute.

“One word I would use to describe my life would be ‘serendipity,'” he said. “I was a complete non-entity until someone stumbled upon me and took an interest in me for no reason what-so-ever.”

This someone that Bell credits all of his success, athletically and otherwise, is his coach, physician, and life-long friend, Dr. William Bannon. Bannon was the first person to push Bell to pursue a future through long jump. After recognizing Bell’s athletic accomplishments in the army, Bannon attempted to convince Bell to consider Indiana University to hone his skills. But Bell did not believe that his ability was worth much of anything.

“During those days, I thought that if I could have a hundred dollar bill in my pocket, I would be a huge success,” he said. Being the middle child of a poor, African-American family with 10 children, he had already surpassed his family’s expectations by graduating high school and finding a job on a farm. Bell never thought he would achieve anything worth writing about. But after a year, Bell caved to Bannon’s pressure and became a Hoosier.

“As they say, from then on it’s history,” he said.

It is the belief in the power of the support from just one individual that Bell exemplifies in the motivational speeches he know gives to various universities and athletic teams. Bell hopes that passing on the same confidence and opportunity he received will inspire other young athletes and honor the late doctor.

Bell’s philosophy is embodied in his poem titled “I Believe in You.” He often recites the poem from memory during his speeches. Bell writes, “There seems to be no limit as to what a man can do/ If he’s buoyed up by the current of an ‘I believe in you.'”

“Be who you are. Just because you don’t win a gold medal doesn’t mean you’re nobody,” he advises. “I just want people to know that athletes have more facets.”

When Bell was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1988, instead of donating an old pair of running shoes or his gold medal, he instead gave three pieces of poetry to be displayed in the museum. One of thesepoems was “I Believe in You.”

“I have never had a problem separating who I am from what I did. That does not define me.,” he said. “In fact, as soon as you define me, you negate me. I’m a lot more.”