David Farmer’s Uphill Journey to the Transplant Games

Photo Courtesy: David Farmer

By Alison Murtagh, Swimming World College Intern

David Farmer is currently preparing to swim in his first Transplant Games in Cleveland, Ohio this coming June. However, his road to competition took much longer than any other swim meet he has ever trained for.

Growing up outside of Cleveland, Ohio, Farmer was a swimmer from a young age. He swam for the Lake Eerie Silver Dolphins, as well as for the Hawken School. Farmer went on to swim the 200 breaststroke, 100 IM, and 100 butterfly at Hamilton College in New York.

After college, Farmer remained active, taking up CrossFit to stay in shape. However, in January 2011, his life changed forever. At 41 years of age, Farmer was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease, hepatitis. Treatment did not work, and his liver failure increased. Shortly after he was discharged from the hospital, Farmer fell into a coma.

On February 28, 2011, Farmer underwent surgery to receive a liver transplant. Due to the severity of his condition, Farmer was able to bypass the line for an organ donation and receive a new liver immediately.

Farmer has not looked up who is donor was, but instead refers to his donor as “Sam” for good Samaritan.

“One of the things I try to do is, be as fit as I can, and active as I can, and still try to grow as a person to honor that, to try to live up to this person’s ideal.”

After his transplant, Farmer worked to build up his strength so he could get back to CrossFit. However, he soon discovered the Transplant Games, and decided he wanted to get back in the pool again.

Farmer joined Team Illinois, and began preparing for the games. This past winter he also joined the North Shore Masters Swim Team, based in Evanston, to get back his feel for the water.

“It’s the weirdest feeling. There’s 26 years from the last time I stood on the blocks until the next time afterwards. And that feeling that you get, and that excitement, and all that adrenaline, that feeling doesn’t change. It’s there still,” Farmer said. “The difference is, it’s more positive. For me, it was negative, and I would psych myself out, and I was a real head-case as a swimmer in college. And that’s no longer the case. It’s just really funny how you get a little more perspective.”


Photo Courtesy: David Farmer

Farmer relied on the lessons he learned from swimming when he was recovering from his transplant. Farmer’s high school coach, Jerry Holtrey, was the most important person in his swimming career, and one of his biggest motivators post-transplant.

“He was just a general, positive role model in our lives, and taught us how to win and lose with grace and discipline. And winning was defined as doing the best you could,” Farmer said. “That came into the importance of my transplant because there were a lot of scary things that happened at this time, and I would imagine his voice, and I would imagine what he would tell me in that moment.”

After his transplant, Farmer developed a lymphoma, a blood cancer. He relied on his lessons from Holtrey to stay calm during medical procedures and when tackling the new obstacles he had to face.

“He plays a relevant role in post-transplant complications and difficulties. I still have some of the workouts, and some of the notes that he would give the swimmers before meets to psych us up and things like that. And so I read those occasionally, and it comes back to all these good habits and all the discipline—understanding the discomfort and understanding how to push yourself, understanding that to be a swimmer you have to sacrifice your Friday nights in college or in high school,” Farmer said. “And that’s okay because you’ve got this other goal, that’s better, and that goal will pay off so much more in the end. And I really feel that’s been the case and I think that having that discipline, and having that ability to draw back on those memories has made a lot of my recovery easier and it has helped me to this day.”

Farmer’s wife, sister, father, and college teammate will all be going to Illinois to cheer him on as he participates in his first Transplant Games. Recipients of all ages can take part in the games, as well as donors.

“It’s a real celebration of people who can’t thank, shake their hand, and hug their donor. But it’s also for the people who can. And that’s a really special thing,” Farmer said.