By by Dr. Phillip Whitten//Contributor | Monday, May 22, 2017
Swimming lore is filled with stories of amazing deeds, of “impossible” acts of physical courage and mind-boggling tales of survival against overwhelming odds.
Jeff Farrell’s refusal to accept any special consideration after undergoing an emergency appendectomy just six days before he was to swim the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1960 is an example of both physical and moral courage.*
Less well known is the fact that there was a second hero at the 1960 Trials: Bruce Hunter. Heading into the Trials, Farrell had been regarded as the fastest 100-meter freestyler in the world. Hunter was considered a long shot at best. But the Harvard senior put together the race of his life and placed second, right behind Lance Larson and just out-touching Farrell for the Number Two spot.
Hunter had worked diligently for most of his life for that one race. But he knew beating Farrell a second time would be an aberration, a fluke. So he offered to step down, claiming he was in pain, big time, having jammed his toe. But neither the U.S. Olympic Committee nor Farrell was buying it. Neither was Lance Larson, a flyer who volunteered to do extra duty to help the team out. “Bruce’s offer was genuine,” says Farrell, “but I did not consider it seriously. The only way I was going to go to Rome was by earning it, the same as everybody else.”
The rest, as they say, is history: Hunter swam the 100-meters in Rome, surprising the experts by finishing a strong fourth; Larson swam fly on the winning medley relay; he almost certainly won the 100 free, but was judged second by an official who was unable to see the finish; and Farrell earned two gold medals, anchoring the 800m free relay and the 400m medley relay.
More recently, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing provided a less well-known instance of camaraderie and good sportsmanship. Nonetheless, it was, in every way, a class act, a perfect instance of ethical behavior and good sportsmanship. Let’s set the scene.
It is Tuesday, August 16, 2008. We’re in the Ready Room of the Olympic natatorium with the eight women who will contest the next semifinal of the 50-meter freestyle, AKA the Splash and Dash, swimming’s quickest event. You can’t afford to make a mistake in the 50. There’s just one strategy: get off the blocks first, go all-out, don’t breathe and try to hit the touch pad before everyone else.
That’s it. There’s no time for anything else. After this heat, the 90 women
who had qualified to enter the 50 will be pared down to eight finalists.
The tension in the room is palpable, oppressive, as eight pairs of eyes work hard to appear nonchalant, deliberately avoiding the seven pairs of eyes belonging to their competitors.
Aside from the tension and the jitters that come with the Olympics, the world’s major swim suit companies have chosen this date and these Games to conduct the first field tests of their new, high-tech suits.
Swedish sprint star Therese Alshammar recalls: “Going into 2008, I had the fastest time in the world and was ranked No. 1, but in March, when the new suits were first introduced in Australia, they took times to a new level.”
“I only got to try the suit on at the Olympics, but for some reason – maybe because they tore easily – they were hard to come by there too.”
“As my heat was called, I stood up to march out to the blocks. That’s when my zipper popped open. I had a feeling of all the air going out of me – the exact opposite of the ‘ready-to-race’ feeling I had experienced previously.”
Then the tension became almost unbearable as Therese tried desperately to get her suit back on – normally, a 25-minute affair. With help from a manufacturer’s rep, Therese finally got the zipper hooked up again. But by this time, all eight semifinalists had been introduced and the starter was ready to send the heat off.
Therese recalls the extraordinary events that followed: “Dara Torres stood up and walked over to the referee. She told him about my situation and asked him to hold the start. Amazingly, he did.”
Dara went on to win the silver medal in 24.07 seconds, just one-hundredth of a second behind the winner, Britta Steffen of Germany. Dara’s time still stands as the American record today. Unfortunately, Therese, still shaken up, swam poorly and placed a disappointing ninth.
Therese commented: “I’ve said many times what a fantastic, thoughtful and caring act she did, for which I will always be grateful. She showed strength and great character and she is a great role model and friend. I’m forever thankful to her.”
A class act.
*You can buy Jeff Farrell’s book – “My Olympic Story, Rome 1960” at Amazon.