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by Joseph Coplan

July 19, 2000

Maintained his speed for decades

Former Olympian Defies Age and Challenges Time, by Joseph Coplan, New York Times, May 3,1998:

Jeff Farrell refuses to go gentle into that good night. In fact, at the close of the 20th century, this gold medalist from the 1960 Rome Olympics might win the over 50 vote for athlete of the century. He has been an elite swimmer for the last five decades and this week at the United States Masters Short Course Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis, the 61-year-old Farrell could ultimately swim back in time and better his career personal best in the 50-yard freestyle.

At the 1997 short course nationals in Seattle, he broke the age group (60-64) American record with a time of 23.28 seconds, despite a slow pool and a flawed race. "I missed the turn," he said.

In 1960, Farrell set his own personal standard of 22.50 in the 50-yard freestyle and won the 100 and 220-yard races at the United States nationals. In the intervening 37 years, Farrell has "slowed" at a mind-bending rate of only 21 to 28 one-thousandths of a second per year in the 50 freestyle.

An Olympic gold medal favorite in 1960; a 1997 champion in Masters swimming (which provides competition in incremental age groups of five years for anyone 20 years and over), and a scant .78 seconds separate the two. That Farrell has maintained his speed for decades and essentially defied the aging process begs the question: When does the speed-versus-age-curve finally catch up to a world-class athlete? At age 75? 80?

"I don't work out too hard and not year-round," Farrell said. "There will be a fall-off point."

Belying his humility, Farrell's flair for the dramatic has raised his story to mythic proportions. If any elite swimmer can race faster in his 60s than in his 20s, it is Farrell. His legend comes by way of his performance at the 1960 United States Olympic trials in Detroit. He was indisputably the fastest sprinter in the world that year, but six days before the trials he underwent an appendectomy. Officials offered him a swim-off weeks after the trials, but Farrell wanted to make the Olympic team based solely upon his post surgical performance at the trials. He missed qualifying for the 100 meters by a whisker.

Instead, Farrell went to Rome as a member of the United States 800-meter freestyle relay team, which won a gold medal and set world and Olympic records.

So, how has Farrell been able to maintain his performance over the decades? Most who know him say he's just a natural.

Farrell is more specific "I don't breathe in the 50 now," he said recently, "and that was unthinkable back then. I now take fewer strokes per lap. I use the body suit," he added, referring to a swim suit made of fibers that assist in streamlining the body, reducing lift and drag.

He also credits underwater goggles and video cameras with helping him to train longer and more efficiently. "In 1960, there was little or no stroke analysis," he said.

Still, he doesn't train as hard now; he logs 2,000 meters, three days a week. His training before the 1960 Olympic Trials consisted of a five-to-six-day-a-week, 6,000 yard schedule. And technology works both for and against him. He will go faster because of the advances in pool design, better starting platforms and "faster" water that is deeper and less turbulent. But the precision of electronic timing corrects the quick trigger finger of hand-held timers who tended to favor the swimmer.

But given all these factors, Farrell, if not quickening his pace, is at least fending off the effects of aging. And he is not an anomaly; competitive swimmers appear to survive the test of time at peak performance longer than athletes in other sports contested for time. The Masters all-American Graham Johnston of Houston, now in the 65-69 age group, recently improved upon his 60-64 age group times. Gus Langer of Connecticut, now 94, who set Masters records in numerous age categories over two decades, only "noticed the curve downward in my mid-80s and it was exponential after that."

Dr. David Costill , a director at Ball State University's Human Performance Lab and a 62 year old competitor of Farrell's, initiated scientific studies that found, among aging swimmers, that many in their 60s and 70s maintained the maximum heart rate of a 30 year old—190.

Of course, the older swimmer must maintain a continuous training regimen. During a brief period before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Mark Spitz , who won seven gold medals in Munich in 1972, attempted an Olympic comeback. Just past 40, Spitz failed even to make the cutoff time to qualify for the trials and was four seconds over his personal best from the 1972 Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly.

In sprinters like Spitz and Farrell, said Dr. Jim Miller , chairman of sports medicine research for Masters swimming, "The 'fast twitch fibers' decline is based on use." Spitz had not been training and he wasn't "meet tough," whereas Farrell has been sprinting steadily since 1981.

So, from all anecdotal evidence, Jeff Farrell has 20-plus more years to improve. But first he must better himself. It could happen in the 50 in Indianapolis.

Chasing Youth - Jeff Farrell's Masters performances are barely behind those of 1960, his Olympic year.

Year  Age 50-yard time
1960  22  22.50
---  --  ------
1981  44  23.66
1984  47  23.84
1988  51  23.46
1990  53  23.36
1994  57  23.73
1997  60  23.28

1997 SPMA Swimmer of the Year (Winter 1998)

Jeff Farrell, age 60, has been selected as SPMA's Swimmer of the Year for 1997 for his record performances thoughout the year. Jeff's most astonishing feat was winning the 50, 100, 200 free, 50 fly and 100 IM at the Short Course Nationals in Federal Way and establishing national records in each. In the summer long course season, Jeff added several world records to the SCM world records he broke last winter.

Jeff grew up in Kansas and started his swimming career at age 12. At that time there were only two age divisions, junior (through age 15) and senior. Jeff went on to compete for Oklahoma University and was an NCAA finalist in the 110 and 220-yard freestyle. He went on to become a repeat national champion in those same events and became the first man to break 56 and later 55 for the 100-meter freestyle. He was clearly the front-runner for the 1960 Olympics in those events. Unfortunately, six days before the Olympic Trials, Jeff was stricken with an acute case of appendicitis, and did his taper in a hospital operating room. He was able to compete in the trials but placed third in both events with only the first two places eligible to swim those events in the Olympics. Jeff blames his third place in the 100, not on the appendicitis, but on over-confidence and a mental lapse which caused him to hit the lane markers 15 meters from the finish. Jeff's third places earned him a position on the 400 medley relay and the 800 freestyle relay and he anchored both relays to gold medals in the Rome Olympics.

After 20 years of living abroad, Jeff returned to swimming in 1980, settling in Santa Barbara where he still lives with his wife and two children. He was motivated to return to the pool by a close friend of his who swims for the New England Masters. Each year they have a standing engagement as roommates at Short Course Nationals. Jeff also credits coach Judy Bonning , who was then the coach of Santa Barbara Masters, for playing an important role in his comeback. She brought him into the modern age of swimming, teaching him new techniques such as alternate breathing in the freestyle.

Jeff is a member of Ojai-Santa Barbara working out with the Santa Barbara group 3 to 5 times per week. He averages 2,500-3,000 meters (50-meter course) per workout doing 95% freestyle, 5% IM and other strokes. Jeff does mostly short rest, endurance freestyle sets such as 5x4x100 or 40x50 with 5 to 10 seconds rest. During the taper phase, he adds some 18 yard sprints and shaves down for the big meet. Jeff very candidly acknowledged that his world record performances were due more to a "natural" feel for the water than his workout habits. He does make a point of learning two new techniques or skills each year.

from Swimmer's Source, Winter 1988


from Swim magazine, July-August 1996

1960 - ROME

Going into the 1960 trials, Jeff Farrell was one of the preeminent swimmers in the country, if not the world. But his own world came crashing down only six days before the Trials when he suffered acute appendicitis. Doctors performed an appendectomy, and the general consensus was that Farrell would not be part of the U.S. Olympic Team.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Olympic Committee, sympathetic to his cause, proposed a 100 free time trial for Farrell two weeks after the trials. Should Farrell beat the sixth place time from the trials, he would be included at least as an alternate for the 4 x 100 free relay.

Nothing doing for this courageous competitor. Still fighting the pain from surgery, Farrell suited up for the 100 free at the Olympic Trials and won his preliminary and semi-final heats. The story was different in the final. "I was overconfident," he remembers, "and 15 to 20 meters from the wall, I hit the lane rope." He finished third behind Lance Larson and Bruce Hunter , and only the top two finishers went to Rome. But, a fourth place finish in the 200 free earned him a spot on the 4 x 200 free relay.

At the Olympics, Farrell anchored both the medley and freestyle relays to gold medals and world records. "I cruised the 100, and my 200 split was my best time," says Farrell.

by Scott Rabalais, Swim magazine, July-August 1996


Induction Into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1968)

Jeff Farrel (USA) was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as an Honor Swimmer in 1968. The following text was included in the program for the induction ceremony of that year:

No man ever overcame a greater handicap to make the U.S. Olympic swimming team than Jeff Farrell, the world's premier freestyle sprinter at the time of the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. Farrell, with world standard times at 100 yards, 100 meters, 110 yards, 200 yards, 200 meters and 220 yards, was considered a shoo-in for the Olympic team when he came down with acute appendicitus six days before the Olympic Trials at Detroit. The operation was a success, but Farrell, wrapped in yards of adhesive tape, was considered in no shape to swim. He refused a special dispensation and took his chances in the sudden death trials that mark U.S. team selection methods. Farrell placed fourth, and qualified for the relays. By Rome, Farrell was fully recovered and anchored both U.S. men's relays to Olympic and world records for his two Olympic gold medals.

Farrell's whole swimming career was a classic example of determination. A good high school swimmer from Wichita, Kan., he enrolled at Oklahoma, talked athletic director Bud Wilkinson into hiring Matt Mann, the retired Michigan coach. Under Mann, Farrell became a conference champion, worked his way up to the finals in NCAA and NAAU championships. Just about the time Farrell was ready to make his run for the top, he wrecked his shoulder in a dormitory wrestling match. His senior year in college, with a long scar marking the shoulder operation, he was a solid third in the Nationals, pretty good swimming, but Farrell was not ready to quit. He became a Navy ensign and was assigned to the ROTC at Yale where he worked out with retired Yale coach Bob Kiphuth, and finally reached his potential without injury. Farrell was unbeatable that winter at Yale, winning the National AAUs. Everyone—Matt Mann, Bob Kiphuth, the swimmers—agreed it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Even Farrell must have figured he was finally home free until the appendectomy came to handicap him once more.




  • Olympians