A miniature Snell to quicken the indoor pulse

Half-miler Tommy Farrell, who was blooded amid the flying elbows and crowded board tracks of the tough New York circuit, is a pint-sized version of the New Zealand Olympian, even to the point of breaking records
January 24, 1966

Draw him as rabid, describe him as fanatical and color him gray-smoke, the sluglike hue of the world he lives in on cold winter nights. The devout follower of indoor track is all these things, and last season he was something worse—frustrated. Stopwatch at the ready, his fierce appetite for competition and fast times whetted by the return from Tokyo of masses of Olympic heroes and heroines, he had to settle—with one heartening exception—for cameo appearances of athletes gone stale.

Fortunately, his hunger no longer need go unappeased. The quick, lithe men and women who run, jump and throw are now ready to play in earnest. Jim Ryun, the Kansas freshman, is out with the flu this week but has already run a 4:02.1 indoor mile. Kipchoge Keino, the astonishing distance runner from Kenya, makes the first of two or three indoor appearances at the Los Angeles Invitational this weekend. John Pennel thinks he can clear at least 17 feet in the pole vault. The brightest light of the winter, however, may be 22-year-old Tommy Farrell, an undergraduate at St. John's University in New York and a product of a high school athletic program that embraces indoor track with the fervor usually reserved for basketball in Indiana and football in Texas.

Tommy Farrell is a middle-distance miner who can quicken a pulse just by stepping out on the track. He has won races slithering past the leader on the pole, by stopping short and bursting around the field on the outside or simply by jumping into the lead at the starter's gun and setting a world-record pace that leaves his opposition struggling like men wading in water. These tactics and his natural speed have made Farrell the best half-miler in the U.S. The remarkable thing about him, though, is that until two years ago he had never broken 1:52 in his specialty, an oversight that would not even have ranked him with the best high school half-milers in this country. He resembled a world-class middle-distance runner in only one, albeit not too helpful, respect. His flaring ears, curly hair, wide-set eyes and pleasant, bony, boyish features gave him a striking likeness to Peter Snell. Peter Snell in miniature, that is. At 5 feet 7 Farrell was four inches shorter than the Olympic 800 and 1,500-meter champion, and he weighed a good 30 pounds less than Snell's muscular 170.

Farrell has added absolutely nothing to his physical stature—indeed, he has subtracted five pounds from it. His racing stature, however, has been something else again since the early spring of 1964 when, along with the crocuses, he began to blossom in exciting and unexpected ways. By late May, after barely qualifying for the final, he won the IC4A 880 championship in a brisk 1:49.5. Three weeks later he shot sideways through a gap about wide enough to accommodate a javelin and won the NCAA 800-meter title by a stride in 1:48.5. Two weeks later he finished fourth at the first Olympic tryouts, was second in the final tryouts in September and beat out teammate Jerry Siebert for fifth place in the rugged Olympic final at Tokyo with an excellent clocking of 1:46.6. In five months Farrell, just out of his teens, had improved his best performance by a full five seconds and had taken everyone by surprise. When, amid the quiet doings of last indoor season, he set a world record for 880 yards (1:49.8) in the New York AC Games and beat an old rival, Canada's Bill Crothers, in the bargain, nobody was surprised any longer.

"It's a funny thing," says his St. John's coach, 30-year-old Steve Bartold, "he doesn't even look like an athlete. He's just too small. But when he gets on a track he looks bigger, much stronger, more forceful."

Undoubtedly there is an infield full of minor reasons why Farrell made such an astonishing breakthrough in 1964. Coach Bartold thinks it may be the fact that he fed his charge on a diet of quarter miles, in individual races and in mile relays, in lieu of the usual heavy program of half miles. This left Farrell rested and sharp for the climax of the outdoor season. Farrell agrees and adds that the five pounds he lost that year helped.

"I could feel the excess weight in my rear and in my thighs," says Farrell, demonstrating his point with a sort of competitive version of the twist. "It would swing my body from side to side."

Probably the most significant reason for Farrell's sudden prominence, however, is that he had become a mature product of one of the best track factories in the world, the metropolitan area's parochial prep and high schools. These are the schools that gave the U.S. Olympic teams of 1956 and 1960 their best half-milers, Tom Courtney and Tom Murphy. Each year they feed talent into eastern Catholic colleges which, like the schools, are in their most frenetic spell of activity during the indoor season. Five major indoor meets at Madison Square Garden fill out their programs with high school relays. So do two in Boston, one in Philadelphia and dozens in lesser conference and regional meets every weekend. The winter track season, with its big crowds packed in tightly around the athletes, is a heady source of excitement that lasts four months. After it the outdoor season is almost an anticlimax.

"The Catholic high schools just seem to be very well organized," says Bartold, a graduate of non-Catholic Sewanhaka High School on Long Island. "There are midget groups and submidget groups, 110-pound groups and 127-pound groups, Brothers doing this and Brothers doing that. Why, there are 250 kids on the track team at Archbishop Molloy where Tommy went to school. It's a circus."

As a freshman at Molloy, Farrell tried out for the baseball team as a pitcher, but was cut, probably because he lacked size. He joined the mob scene at the track. In his sophomore year he suffered such a bad case of fallen arches that he could hardly walk for a month, but by his junior year he was caught up in the high school two-mile relay craze that makes practically every runner in the New York area want to be a half-miler. As a senior at Molloy he won the national scholastic indoor 1,000 yard, but outdoors achieved a distinctly modest best of 1:54.3 at the 880.

If Farrell's first three years in college were nothing to write home about, that was no problem; he never left home. His world was tightly bounded by the red-brick and white-stucco house his family has owned for 30 years on a quiet, tree-shaded street in Forest Hills, just a warmup jog from the tennis stadium and a 15-minute commute away from the shiny new, pale-tan buildings at St. John's, nearly a mile from Molloy. At home he enjoyed a normal routine with his nonathletic father, a representative for New York's Health Insurance Plan, his mother, a refreshing and cheerful former high school basketball player, his teen-age sister Mary, who typically spends most of her spare time on the telephone, his brothers Kevin, who is 7, and Peter, 18 (now at Notre Dame). At St. John's he majored in nothing more outlandish than marketing and maintained a reliable C+ average. Even his running was no more than routinely successful, there never being any call for him to compete any farther away than Quantico, Va. or Hamilton, Ont.

But in his unspectacular way he was learning to practice hard. Unlike Snell, or Germany's Jürgen May, who work up from the half mile, Farrell is a half-miler who works down to the quarter. He thus does not need the prodigious quantity of distance training that the longer-distance runners must log. Yet during peak conditioning periods he will put in up to 30 miles a week on the track, most of them in successive sprints at 220 or 440 yards. He has developed a powerful finishing kick that he can maintain for 220 yards.

Having been raised on the tight turns and flying elbows that abound indoors, Farrell has developed a very sharp sense of tactics. As Crothers says, "Farrell can run according to the competition"—a rare quality. In his first major success, the 1964 NCAA championship in Eugene, Ore., it was Farrell's sense of the race that actually won for him.

"Coming out of a turn you always have a tendency to drift wide," says Farrell. "In that race I was boxed on the inside coming off the last turn, but I worked hard to stay by the curb and, when John Garrison [of San Jose State] just ahead of me drifted, I was able to squeeze by on his left."

Getting boxed in is a hard-to-avoid circumstance that happens to the best tacticians, but a truly fine one like Farrell usually can find the escape hatch. At the final Olympic tryouts he came pounding out of the last turn with three runners stretched across the track in front of him like a phalanx of Alabama police and another, Barry Sugden, pressing in on the right. Farrell simply slowed almost to a halt to let Sugden move ahead, then swerved to the outside with a burst of speed that carried him all the way to Tokyo. He delivered a similar tactical thrust last June in winning his second NCAA half-mile title.

When Farrell beat Crothers and broke Peter Snell's world indoor 880 record last winter his tactics were completely different. He simply started fast, kept up the pace and then turned on his winning kick two steps before Crothers tried to mount his. This winter Farrell is stronger than ever, pushing himself through workouts on St. John's outdoor track that are at least 10% harder and faster than those of a year ago. The maturing half-miler, buoyed by the confidence that success and experience have given him, vows to run several more of these pace-setting races.

"I'll go just as fast as I can from start to finish in some races at 600, 880 and 1,000 yards," he says. "I don't know whether it will work, but I want to see what happens."

With Tom Farrell, records could happen. They would be the centerpieces for a season that promises to be fast from start to finish.

PHOTOOUT IN THE COLD, Farrell trains for indoor meets on St. John's all-weather track. PHOTOFARRELL FLASHES' HIS WINNER'S SMILE