WATERVILLE — At approximately 3:15 on Sunday afternoon, Brittney Bell walked across the stage set up in Colby College’s Wadsworth Gymnasium. Bell accepted her diploma, essentially crossing her second finish line in 18 hours.
On Saturday night, Bell, a Poland native, ran the anchor leg for the Colby women’s 1,600 meter relay team at the NCAA Division III championships in LaCrosse, Wis. Bell and her teammates, Emily Doyle, Frances Onyilagha and Emily Tolman placed second, just behind host school Wisconsin-La Crosse.
A couple weeks ago, Bell thought she’d have to make a difficult decision. Run in Wisconsin or march in Waterville. There was no way Bell would be able to compete in La Crosse on Saturday night and get back to Colby in time for Sunday’s graduation ceremony at 10 a.m. There were no late flights back to Maine.
“I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, to go to college, so I knew it was really important to my family,” Bell, a biology major, said. “I also know it’s really important to the 4×400 team that we go to nationals. Neither decision only affected me. I was talking to both sides and figuring everything out.
“Initially I thought I was going to make it back, because we thought the 4×400 was going to be earlier in the day and we would make a flight later (Saturday) night. But when we found out (the race) was at 6:20 in Wisconsin, I cried.”
To the eternal credit of everyone at Colby, the school’s administration made sure that was a choice Bell did not have to make.
“We don’t want to create artificial boundaries and choices. Brittany is an example of someone who has excelled in multiple arenas and we’re delighted to honor that today,” Jim Sloat, Colby’s Assistant Dean of Faculty, said.
When assistant track and field coach Emily Hackert approached Sloat with the Bell dilemma, he didn’t hesitate. As far as Colby was concerned, Bell would do both.
“I knew as soon as the request came in, this was exactly the kind of thing that we’d do,” Sloat said.
The Colby 1,600 relay team worked hard to enjoy a special spring. Saturday night’s time of 3 minutes, 44.74 seconds marked the fifth time since May 1 the team broke its own school record. Each time out, the Mules were faster, and head coach Deb Aitken said all four runners had their fastest split times at the NCAA championship. It’s easy to think if they raced Wisconsin-La Crosse, which won with a time of 3:43.52, the Mules would win.
After Bell represented Colby so well, her school did right by her and her family on Sunday afternoon.
Bell flew from Chicago to Portland on Sunday morning, finally arriving back on campus at 1:30 Sunday afternoon in plenty of time for her graduation ceremony of one.
Surrounded by family, friends and teammates, Bell took a seat in the front row in front of the stage in a nearly-empty Wadsworth Gymnasium. Colby athletic director Marcella Zalot said a few words and was followed by Judy Stone, one of Bell’s favorite professors in the Biology department.
Then, Sloat, standing off to the right of the stage, presented the candidate for graduation.
“Brittney Nicole Bell,” Sloat said. His voice echoed through the gym and Bell walked across the stage and received her diploma from Lori Kletzer, Colby’s Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
To polite applause, Brittney Bell ended her college career with a smile, as an All-American track athlete and the first in her family to do so.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Brittney’s mother, Nancy Bell. “We are still stunned. This whole event, that they threw for my daughter.”
Bell will apply to dental schools next year, with an eye on enrolling the following year. On Sunday afternoon, surrounded by so many people who care for her, Bell’s smile was perfect.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242