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Neither An Appendectomy Nor Age Slowed 1960 Olympic Champion Jeff Farrell In The Pool

By Peggy Shinn | Aug. 26, 2020, 12:13 p.m. (ET)

The men's swim team poses for a team photo before the Olympic Games Rome 1960. Jeff Farrell is located in the back, furthest to the right. 

Six years ago, a reporter called Jeff Farrell the fastest over-75-year-old swimmer who has ever lived. 

Sixty years ago, he was one of the fastest swimmers in the world, period, and a favorite to make the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and win gold in the 100-meter freestyle.

Until Farrell developed acute appendicitis six days before U.S. Olympic Trials. A week after surgery, he still managed to qualify to compete in Rome in the 200 freestyle relay. A month after that, he helped the U.S. win gold—and set world records—in two relays. His story became legendary and is chronicled in his autobiography, My Olympic Story, Rome 1960.

Perhaps just as legendary is Farrell’s masters swim career. With his same smooth stroke, he set multiple age group world records over the past 40 years—an inspiration to anyone who thinks age should keep them out of the pool, or out of any sport. He is the only swimmer ever to be inducted into both the International Swimming Hall of Fame and the Masters Swimming Hall of Fame. 

Olympic Story

Farrell first learned to swim at a YMCA in Wichita, Kansas. He felt comfortable in the pool—unlike other sports where he showed less promise. His first goal was to swim the English Channel, and he even named his first car—a 1935 grey Ford—Gray Gertie, after Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the channel.

Instead, Farrell made his mark in the pool. He won gold in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1959 Pan Am Games and set a Pan Am record. 

Over the next 10 months, he set American records in the 100 and 200 freestyles—both yards and meters—and became the first swimmer ever to swim the 200-meter freestyle under two minutes.

Heading to 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials, Farrell was a favorite to make the team and lead the U.S. at the Rome Olympic Games. 

Then, at 4 a.m. on July 27, 1960, he awoke with severe abdominal pain. Two teammates and his coach rushed him to the hospital, where surgeons removed his appendix. 

“A Pre-Olympic Setback for U.S.” ran a story in The New York Times. Doctors said Farrell would be hospitalized for five days “and would be unable to swim for some time after that.” 

Olympic Trials were a week away.

Behind the scenes, officials considered bending the rules to allow Farrell to compete in the Rome Games. 

“No thanks,” Farrell told them, as related in The Times. “I’d rather earn it.”

Day two after surgery, Farrell eased himself into the pool. By day three, he was dog-paddling. The day before Trials started, Farrell swam a 50-meter time trial with his coach to see if he had the speed. He did.

With stitches still holding the five-inch incision together and his midsection taped, Farrell dove into the pool for his 100 freestyle heat—and won. That evening, he won the semifinals as well. 

Twenty-four hours later, in the 100 finals, Farrell was closing in on the leaders. But then inexplicably, he veered off course, striking the lane line with his right arm. It broke his rhythm. Farrell touched the wall in third, 0.1 of a second from qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team.

(The 4 x 100 freestyle relay would not make its Olympic debut until 1964, so only the top two swimmers in the 100 freestyle earned Olympic berths in 1960.)

Two days later—after again swimming a prelim, semifinal, and final—Farrell finished fourth in the 200. It was good enough for a relay spot in Rome. 

“This is one of the greatest sports stories of my lifetime,” his coach, Bob Kiphuth, told The New York Times. “It’s a saga of the spirit, a triumph of mind over matter—or am I getting too poetic for you? Let’s just say that Jeff showed more guts and determination than I’ve ever before seen. What he achieved bordered on the miraculous. A week after an appendectomy, he swam his way to a place on the Olympic team.”

On August 22—three-and-a-half weeks after his appendectomy—Farrell swam a 100-meter time trial to see who would swim the freestyle leg of the 4 x 100 medley relay. His time of 54.7 was only one-tenth off the world record and was the fastest on the team.

The two relay finals were slated for September 1, 1960—just an hour apart. Farrell anchored both the 4 x 100 medley, then the 4 x 200 freestyle relays to world records. 

“Farrell’s stroke is slow and clear and his kick is deep, and he gave the impression of saving something in case he might need it,” noted a Times reporter.

Masters Swimming

Farrell did seem to save something. After a 20-year career in international affairs and business overseas, Farrell and his family moved to California. There, a former teammate coaxed him back into the pool.

Over the next 30+ years, Farrell set dozens of national and world masters records. He still holds five national records—all set after he had a triple bypass and aortic valve replacement at age 69. 

“Arguably the most impressive aspect of his ability to stay a world class swimmer over the course of nearly 60 years is that he’s managed to keep up with the seemingly ever-changing rules,” wrote Spencer Penland for Swimswam.com in 2018 after Farrell broke the world record for the 50m freestyle for the 80-84 age group. “The sport was dramatically different back when Farrell set his first world record—from huge things like the fact that swimmers didn’t wear goggles back in 1960 to all the incremental mechanics changes that have occurred since then. Farrell has managed to stay at the top through all of that.”

At a masters meet in February 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S., Farrell won four races in the 80-84 age group. His time of 29.64 in the 50-yard freestyle would have placed him second in the 50-54 age group, and his 100-yard freestyle time was fast enough to win among the 50-54 year olds.

“Today, I am blessed with a loving and supportive family, great friends, and living memories of a time that taught me that when life challenges you, you need to have faith,” Farrell concluded in My Olympic Story, “and just dive in and do your best.” 

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.