Farrell’s form looks good 50 years later

Oct. 14, 2010, 5:19 p.m. (ET)
Does the name Jeff Farrell sound familiar?
That’s probably because he is featured in ESPN The Magazine’s second annual “The Body Issue,” which hit newsstands Oct. 8.
Naturally, the question that comes to mind: But who is Jeff Farrell?
For starters, he is a swimmer. But unlike the other Olympians and Olympic hopefuls in the magazine, Farrell did not compete in Beijing or Vancouver and is not looking to make the team for London.
Farrell actually has the unique honor of being the oldest of the 31 athletes who posed nude for the “Bodies We Want” spread.
He is 73. And his story is one that will always be a part of Olympic history.
In 1959 - 60, Farrell was one of the fastest 100meter freestyle swimmers in the world. With teammates Elton Follett, Lance Larson and Joe Alkire, he set a new world record in the 4x100m freestyle relay on July 21, 1959 in Tokyo. A month later, Farrell took gold in the 100m freestyle at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago.
As 100m and 200m champion and record holder, Farrell was a shoo-in to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, until the unexpected happened.
Six days before the U.S. Olympic Trials, Farrell suffered from appendicitis. He would have to go to the hospital for major surgery and doctors told him there was no way he could recover in time to make the Olympic team.
“When I was in the hospital and they were about to roll me into the operating room, I asked the surgeon how long it would be before I’d be able to swim, and he said it’d be about six weeks,” Farrell said.
“That was my state of mind: complete acceptance that I wouldn’t be able to swim.”
As Farrell would find out years later, his coach, Bob Kiphuth, mentioned to the surgeon that he was an Olympic hopeful. Kiphuth asked that the operation be done with this in mind, so the muscles in Farrell’s abdomen would not be severed.
“Bob knew a great deal about anatomy,” Farrell said. “Sometimes medical school students would come to him and be tested because he knew the human body so well.”
Two days after the operation, Kiphuth spoke to one of the doctors and found out the hospital had a workout room and swimming pool where Farrell could lead himself through physical therapy. Kiphuth told Farrell he might as well try to stay in great shape.
“That afternoon I went to the physical therapy room and tried a little bit,” Farrell said. “I couldn’t do much. Of course I was still in a lot of pain.”
The next day, while still in the hospital, Farrell tried swimming. He went from being a world-class swimmer to not being able to do more than dog paddle. But that still gave him the idea that he might be able to compete at Trials.
Farrell continued to work with Kiphuth in the hospital pool and on the fifth night after his surgery he was forced to make a crucial decision. Olympic Trials were the next day. Farrell was still unable to do what he called “serious swimming.”
He figured he didn’t have anything to lose, so he went to Trials. Kiphuth suggested he scratch the 100m free and focus on the 200m free. The 200m free was not an Olympic event, but it was used in Trials to qualify swimmers for the 4x100m medley relay and 4x200m freestyle relay.
Yet Farrell still wanted to swim the 100m free in Rome. It was his only shot at an individual Olympic medal and he thought he might still be good enough for gold. The next morning, Farrell and Kiphuth went to Trials to practice. It was Farrell’s first time in an Olympic-sized swimming pool since the operation. Farrell did a push-off 50m and Kiphuth deemed it fast enough for Farrell to compete in the 100m.
“Back then the racing dive was flat – you didn’t dive into the water, you dove on top of it with a flat smack, which was not very hydrodynamic but that’s the way it was done,” Farrell said.
Farrell could not dive like that at Trials because of his sensitive abdomen. Instead, he dove deeper.
“It occurred to me much later that maybe I was the first one to incorporate a deeper dive, rather than a belly-buster dive,” Farrell noted.
He successfully finished the race and was the fastest qualifier for the semifinals.
“The secretary of my coach was the first person to greet me when I climbed out of the pool and she hugged me,” Farrell said. “I think she thought I was gonna die in the pool and there was gonna be blood in the water and everything. It was quite an emotional thing.”
In the semifinals, Farrell was the second-fastest. His success in the previous two races gave him a great deal of confidence for the final. But with about 15m left in the final, Farrell swam into a lane line.
He lost concentration, and time, and finished third. Only the top two would go to Rome and Farrell missed the cut by .01seconds to Larson and Bruce Hunter, who finished first and second.
Everyone was shocked that Farrell would not get to compete in the 100m in Rome, including his rivals.
“The next day, Bruce said to me, ‘Jeff you’re obviously a better swimmer than I am. I’m gonna give up my place on the team and you’ll take it.’ He was absolutely serious, it’s the type of person he is. I refused and said, ‘You can’t do that, you beat me fair and square.’ But that was an incredible gesture of sportsmanship on his part.”
Fair play in sport was always number one for Farrell. Before he raced in the 100m finals at Trials he was offered the chance to try out again in another two or three weeks, as long as he did not race at Trials. He refused the opportunity so he could make it, or not make it, with everyone else.
To qualify for a chance on the relay teams, he needed to be in the top six in the 200m final at Trials. Farrell finished fourth. He had overcome more than any swimmer had to before him and did what was deemed impossible. Just six days after his appendectomy, Farrell made the U.S. Olympic team, albeit not in his hoped for event.
On Sept. 1, 1960, Farrell was the anchor leg for the 4x100m medley relay and the 4x200m freestyle relay.
Farrell and teammates Frank McKinney, Paul Hait and Larson earned gold in the 4x100m medley relay and set a new world record. Half an hour later, Farrell was part of another world record when he and teammates George Harrison, Richard Blick and Michael Troy took gold in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
The Rome Olympics were only Farrell’s second trip to a foreign country and inspired him to spend the next two decades on four continents.
After the Games, he moved to Paris for more than a year to learn French. He also spent four months coaching swimming in North Africa, before returning to the States in 1962 to receive his MA in International Relations from Yale University.
Farrell worked for CARE and MEDICO from 1963 – 65 in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. He was working for The Asia Foundation in Thailand in 1967 when he met his wife, Gabrielle. Farrell and Gabrielle went into business together in Bangkok for the next 12 years, in fashion manufacturing, retailing and exporting.
They have one son and one daughter, both in their 30s now. And in 1980, the Farrells moved from Asia back to the United States.
“We wanted to establish cultural roots in a country where it would be a better fit for them than Thailand so we decided to move to the United States. We’re still in the same house we bought a week after we moved to Santa Barbara,” Farrell said.
Daughter, Caroline Farrell, works for a hedge fund, while son, Marco, is a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker and works with his father. Jeff Farrell has been selling houses in Santa Barbara since 1981 and works out of an office he claims is a 90-second walk from his home.
Though he is now 50 years removed from his Olympic medals, Farrell has not slowed down. He is a competitive Masters swimmer and is currently dominating the 70-74 age group on the Masters circuit.
Five years ago, Farrell underwent open-heart surgery and he now has a bovine valve (yes, from a cow) implanted in his heart. But not even that could slow him down. He did not swim for six months after the surgery because he promised his wife he would not.
“But she realized how miserable I was and let me swim again,” Farrell said.
At age 73, Farrell’s times are nothing to laugh about. In July 2010, he swam the 50m butterfly in 36.35, just 14 seconds off from the current world record – a record set by a swimmer 51 years younger than Farrell.