Remembering John Ferris, Olympic Medalist and Man of the World

John Ferris

Remembering John Ferris, Olympic Medalist and Man of the World

By Robert Coe

John Ferris (Stanford University Class of ’73) passed away from cancer in Walnut Creek, California on September 13, 2020. He entered college as the world-record holder in the 200-meter butterfly, set at the World University Games in Tokyo a few weeks before – a record that lasted until his childhood rival Mark Spitz broke it 39 days later. Ferris would go on to win two bronze medals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (200 butterfly/200 individual medley), and a gold medal with a national record performance a year later in the 200-yard fly at the NCAA championship, becoming the first person to swim the distance in under 1:50.

Ferris set his first age-group world record at the age of eight. He set national collegiate freshman records in 1968 in the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 I.M., and swam legs on Stanford’s national record-setting 400 medley and 800 freestyle relays, and in 1970 was a part of a winning 400 medley relay team that won another NCAA title and set another NCAA record. Never a particularly imposing physical specimen – barely six feet and 165 pounds – he used his powerful limbs and a hydro-dynamic barrel chest to arc into a pool barely making a ripple – “diving into a hole in the water” was how he described it, taking a steeper, deeper angle than other swimmers in his day – then performed a few underwater dolphin kicks before surfacing to butterfly over-and-under the water with all the velocity and grace of a frisky Killer Whale. Adopted by his teammates, John’s start – and his flip turn, too – have been taught in countless swim clinics, until Stanford head coach Jim Gaughran would claim decades later that “there isn’t a swimmer in the world who doesn’t use John’s innovation.” In other words, John Ferris “revolutionized swim starts.”

Ferris was only a year away from the Munich Olympics when he abruptly quit serious competition. He would have been favored to medal in his two best events, but the toll of training – up to 80 miles a week in three-a-day summer workouts with Coach Sherm Chavoor at the Arden Hills Swim Club in Sacramento – had cost him a normal childhood, and he was determined to leave his highest-level competition behind. The only reason he won gold in the 200 fly at the 1970 World University Games in Turin was because he wanted to visit Italy. The only reason he continued to swim in college beyond Mexico City was his deep respect for Coach Gaughran and his many friends on the team.

Ferris, who majored in Creative Writing at Stanford, went on to lead an unusual life as an entrepreneur, inventor, teacher, and author of Olympix, a brilliant novel about a young world-class California swimmer who loses his shot at the Games in 1980 and goes on to have adventures in Europe, training a young Croatian during that country’s war for independence. One of his earliest projects was setting up a tourist resort on an abandoned rubber plantation in Tahiti, where he wrote a thrilling story about his encounter with Marlon Brando. Originally from Sacramento, Ferris returned to his home state and went into the cut flower business, collaborating with a Dutch botanist on a machine that preserved flowers three to five times longer than they would have lasted otherwise.

He built a mini-mall in Malibu, renovated a large Victorian on Russian Hill in San Francisco, and founded a restaurant, The Blue Guitar in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was head chef in the kitchen. He worked for a time on a project to take over the former Statler-Hilton Hotel in downtown Buffalo and established an English language school for students from China. When he moved to Moscow to research a second novel, he set up a successful website pairing over 250 native English speakers to Muscovites who wanted to learn the language. He personally taught many children of the Russian oligarchy, and collaborated with one billionaire parent on the creation of an enormous greenhouse for roses in Ethiopia, where he made a study of the possibilities of using dirigibles to deliver them to the marketplaces in Amsterdam.

John lived at one time or another in French Polynesia, Newfoundland, England, Ireland, Portugal, Albania, Croatia, Montreal, Istanbul, Paris, and Addis Ababa, and had two long stints in Prague, Czech Republic, where he spent the last years of his life building from scratch an enormous and hugely-successful youth hostel. John led a singular life, and will forever be remembered for his charm, his undying charisma, and his legendary letters and emails. Ferris was a poet and a dreamer, a lover of life and a true friend. He swam in several Masters competitions in his 30s, but otherwise continued to set unofficial age-group world records during intermittent pool workouts into his fifties and sixties. Donations may be sent in the name of John Ferris to the Special Olympics or a charity of your choice.

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Anonymous

    John became good friends with the divers at the world university games in Torino. He traveled with us after our competition was finished to a couple of great places on our short adventure. He was wonderful and definitely charismatic. A gem of a young guy!

  2. avatar
    Darrell Lohrke

    John and I became good friends when I coached at Arden Hills. He swim in the masters group and several meets in the late 70s and early 80s. He had such a natural ability and quite intensity about himself. Our masters group was as much about the camaraderie as it was about working out. We enjoyed the social aspect as much as the competition. John was central to that, it wouldn’t have been the same without him. We will miss him deeply.

  3. avatar
    Phil Strick

    John was a friend and fellow swimmer at Arden Hills. His entire family were some of the nicest people in the world. John always had a smile coupled with a grin as if he was up to something. Watching him swim was exciting and enjoyable. His butterfly stroke was as smooth as could ever be. John was one of those people whom once you meet him you will never forget him. I think about him often and miss him.

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