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58 Years Before Justin Olsen’s Olympic Appendectomy, Swimmer Jeff Farrell Had One Of His Own

By Scott McDonald | Feb. 24, 2018, 11:12 a.m. (ET)

The 1959 U.S. Pan American Swimming Team poses for a photo, including Jeff Farrell (bottom row, far left).


A little soreness wasn't going to keep Olympic bobsledder Justin Olsen from competing at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Not even undergoing an emergency appendectomy just a few days before the Opening Ceremony.

While in South Korea prepping for the Games, the San Antonio native was admitted to a hospital with acute appendicitis. On Feb. 5, he had a laparoscopic appendectomy in the town of Gangneung, and before long he was back into training mode.

He participated in training runs.

And on Feb. 18, Olsen and brakeman Evan Weinstock took their first two runs in the Olympic two-man bobsled competition. Olsen is now competing in four-man.

Talk about Texas tough.

Olsen, a three-time Olympian and sergeant in the New York National Guard, has been deservedly getting the headlines these past two weeks.

And yet, Olsen isn’t the first Olympian to go through a similar ordeal. Just six days before the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 1960, freestyle swimmer Jeff Farrell had an emergency appendectomy. Farrell had the surgery and was back in training mode just two days later. Soon after in Rome, he went on the win a pair of relay gold medals at those 1960 Olympic Games.

So after headlines of Olsen’s appendix and following surgery hit stateside news feeds, Farrell soon got word. Good friend and fellow Olympic swimmer John Naber, a four-time gold medalist in 1976, contacted Farrell.

“John knows my story and suggested Justin might like to hear from me,” Farrell said. “I agreed with him, and I sent Justin an email.”

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So in the effort to share words of encouragement through his past surgery, Farrell sent a letter to Olsen.

“You, too, can come back,” Farrell wrote, while sharing his story and other advice. “Do not think it is impossible.”

Olsen indeed did come back. Less than two weeks after his surgery, he and Weinstock put down their first two runs, ranking 12th — the top American team — at the midway point of the two-man competition, in which they ultimately finished 14th.


Justin Olsen poses for a portrait at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 26, 2017 in Park City, Utah.


Olsen, 30, is competing at his first Olympics as a pilot, after helping push Steven Holcomb’s four-man sled to a historic gold medal in 2010 and then pushing for Nick Cunningham in 2014.

USA Bobsled & Skeleton confirmed Olsen was walking around the hospital the day after surgery and, by the end of the week, was running on the treadmill.

"I don't need that organ, I think I'm better without it," Olsen told USA Boblsed & Skeleton on Feb. 15, when he participated in his first official training runs. "I think that my body and my mind know that it's time, it's ready. Overall I think my body feels really good. Maybe time off is what I needed, I don't know. You just take what you get and try to make the most of it."

The parallels seem fairly identical between Farrell and Olsen, but medical procedures have changed in the last 60 years. Whereas Farrell had a 5-inch incision to remove a hot appendix, Olsen got a scar not much bigger than a pinhole.

Farrell said his swimming coach before those 1960 Olympic Trials was about 70 years old and a self-professed anatomy junkie.

“My coach studied the human body ever since he was a teenager,” Farrell recalled. “He talked to the surgeon and asked them to don’t cut across any muscles, and cut in between them.

“I then asked surgeon when I could compete, and he said it would be about six weeks before I could swim. My coach thought I could recover more quickly.”

He did, and so did Olsen.

Farrell agreed to share his letter to Olsen with TeamUSA.org:


Your appendectomy was a disaster, but you may be able to overcome it.

In 1960, six days before the US Olympic swimming trials were to begin, I was rushed to the hospital and had an emergency appendectomy. The surgeon said it would beabout six weeks before I would be able to swim. But my coach had other ideas.

The day after operation I was walking and doing (light) abdominal exercises. The next day I went into the small pool in the basement of the hospital. Each day I made progress, and on the sixth day after the operation I found out I could do what I had done the week before: swim fast. On that day I swam well in the prelims and was the fastest swimmer in the semifinals. In the finals, the next day, I lost my concentration and swam into the lane line, so missed making the team in the 100. But I qualified for the relay, and in Rome won two gold medals in one evening as anchor of our two relay teams. 

You, too, can come back. Do not think it is impossible. Take advantage of the team physicians, your coaches, your teammates and your obvious mental and physical capabilities to surprise everyone. If you meet resistance, Google my story and show it to the pessimists. 

Jeff Farrell”

Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 18 years experience in sports reporting. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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