Six Days to Swim: Jeff Farrell Relives 1960 Emergency Appendectomy, Olympic Trials Experience in His Own Words (Part 1)

Editor's Note: In this exclusive Swimming World release, Jeff Farrell discusses the week leading up to the 1960 Olympic Trials, in which he endured an emergency appendectomy just days before he was to race multiple events at the 1960 Olympic Trials. In this first part of the three-part series, Farrell details the emotions behind the realization that he would not be at peak form for the Trials.

When I woke up on July 27, 1960, I was in a bed in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. My swimming coach, Bob Kiphuth, the legendary Yale and Olympic coach, was sitting across the room. As I came out of my anesthetic daze, the fuzzy details of the previous night's events began to come back: waking up in my motel room about 4:00 a.m. with severe abdominal pains and passing out. My roommates called Bob, and we raced to the hospital. The emergency room doctor said I had appendicitis and I would need an immediate appendectomy. I asked the surgeon how long it would be before I could swim, and he replied, “About six weeks.”

It had been a fast and frightening series of events, and Bob and I were thankful the operation had been a success and my appendix had not ruptured. But we were both thinking that the bandage that covered the five-inch long incision was evidence that the surgeon had removed not only my appendix, but also my dream of winning a gold medal in the Rome Olympics. The Games would begin in one month and the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials here in Detroit would start in six days.

Until then, my chances had been very good. That week I had won the 100- and 200-meter freestyle races at the National A.A.U. championships, setting American records in both. My 100 time — 54.8 seconds — was the fastest time in the world since John Devitt set the world record of 54.6 in 1957. Sports writers called me “the fastest swimmer in the world” and, as Bob Kiphuth was quoted, I was “…a shoo-in to win at Rome.”

I had trained under Matt Mann at Oklahoma but assumed my swimming career ended when I graduated and went into the Navy. Then I was invited to go to Yale to train with other Navy swimmers under Bob Kiphuth. I trained hard, in the gym and in the pool, and realized I was capable of being the best. In a year I broke 23 American and world records.

But my goal of an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle now seemed out of the question. The Olympic Trials would begin in six days.

When the anesthesia wore off, my right side hurt, but the big hurt was a pain in my heart. I had been defeated, not by another swimmer, but by an inflamed appendix. For me there would be no Olympics. Despair and self-pity ate into me until I cried. Then, with acceptance, the pain eased.

Tomorrow: Farrell begins the healing process.

This story was originally published in “Six Days to Swim” by Swimming World Magazine in 1970, and authored by Jean M. Henning.