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Paul Wellman (file)

Swimming Star Narrowly Survives Montecito Mudslide

How the Slides Are Affecting Our Sports Community


It hurt like hell when Jeff Farrell swam in the 1960 Olympic trials while the incision from his appendectomy was flaring up, but he never feared it would kill him. He has been blessedly fit in his later years. He set a world age-80 swimming record that was featured in my January 4 column. But when he awoke to a real-life nightmare in his Olive Mill Road home on January 9, Farrell was shocked to be facing his mortality.

“I’ve never been so close to death,” he said of his encounter with the Montecito mudslides. “Marco saved our lives.”

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Courtesy Photo

Marco Farrell, Jeff’s son, shot a video outside their home when the churning mass of mud, boulders, dismembered trees, and the wreckage of manmade artifacts suddenly flooded the road. Marco rushed inside and fetched his parents, Jeff and Gabrielle Farrell. As their one-story house was invaded by the raging mass, they got out and managed to slog to the safety of a passing truck.

They were the lucky ones, incurring only the ruin of most of their possessions. Jeff left behind his gold medals from the Rome Olympics, where he had anchored the U.S. to victory in the two relay races. “They were in my clothes closet and are probably buried under tons of mud,” he said. “I think it will be a long time before we have access to the house.”

Many other residents entirely lost their houses and — the ultimate tragedy — their lives. Every constituency in the greater Santa Barbara community has somebody to mourn.

John McManigal died in the torrent that destroyed his home on Hot Springs Road, while one of his six sons, Connor, survived being battered in the flow for almost a mile. The McManigal boys were prominent in water polo and baseball both at Santa Barbara High and in college. A poignant remnant of their tragedy was found on a windowsill at Lucky’s restaurant on Coast Village Road: a muddied plaque that Michael McManigal was awarded by the Bucknell University water polo coaches in 2003.

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Bill Pintard deeply felt the loss of Mark Montgomery, a hand surgeon who had been one of the most generous supporters of Pintard’s summer baseball team, the Santa Barbara Foresters. “He hosted four of our players at his home every year,” Pintard said. “His daughter [Caroline Montgomery] died too. It’s heartbreaking.”

Tennis star Jimmy Connors sent out a tweet that he and his wife were lifted from peril by a Coast Guard helicopter, and he later found that his Montecito house was intact.

Not so fortunate was Berkeley “Augie” Johnson, a former college rower and one of the strongest men I know. He’s a CrossFit enthusiast who honors the memory of his son, Nick, a water polo player who accidentally died in 2014, by replicating his strenuous workouts. It was wholly in the character of the Johnson family that they fended for themselves when the mudslide tore into their home, and Augie stayed to help firefighters rescue a neighbor’s baby.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE JOYFUL: The back-to-back disasters of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides have curtailed some of the most enjoyable activities of the season. Numerous sporting events have been postponed, moved, or outright canceled because of miserable and mournful conditions.

Bishop Diego High’s football team had a once-in-a-lifetime season, winning 15 games and going all the way to the CIF State Division 3AA championship. The Cardinals were slated to host their two state playoff games at La Playa Stadium and surely would have drawn big hometown crowds — I’m thinking 7,000-8,000 — to see them play. But the air was befouled by the fire during those two weeks, so the games were moved to California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, a 60-mile trek made by perhaps 1,000 Santa Barbara fans.

The next best thing to watching the Cardinals win the championship would be to celebrate with the team, and Bishop Diego invited the public to attend just such a fête, including a free barbecue, on January 12. No sooner had the invitation been sent out than Montecito was devastated, and it was deemed not a good time to hold the festivities. But it’s such a special occasion that it still should go on. With high hopes, Bishop has rescheduled the public gathering to Sunday, January 28, at 4-6 p.m., before the school’s football banquet.

Pintard reflected the general gloom that shrouds the area when he said, “I don’t feel much like celebrating anything.” Accordingly, he said the annual Foresters Hall of Fame/Hot Stove Dinner will not take place this year.

Meanwhile, the basketball season is in full swing, and you can lift your spirits for a couple of hours by attending a high school or college game (Westmont College’s home games are contingent on access and water issues). On the soccer pitch, the Santa Barbara Dons are one of the state’s best boys’ teams. Girls’ water polo is an elite sport in these parts, and the Santa Barbara High Tournament of Champions was postponed from last weekend to January 25-27.

DP FOOTBALL: Nate Mendoza, who directed the Dos Pueblos Chargers to a CIF football final for the second time in their history, is stepping down as their head coach. He will remain at the school as dean of students. Mendoza’s teams went 36-31 in his six seasons at the helm and won or shared three Channel League titles. The Chargers won a record 12 games last season. Time ran out in their last game after they had driven within a yard of the end zone in a 26-21 loss to Quartz Hill. Mendoza’s successor may come from within his solid coaching staff.

WATER POLO LEGEND: Jim Ranta’s wife, Nancy Ranta, said he was singing karaoke at Monty’s Sports Bar when he suffered a fatal heart attack on January 11. Ranta has been described as the “Godfather” of water polo in Santa Barbara schools, having coached aquatics during his 40-year teaching career at Dos Pueblos High. He was inducted into the coaching wing of the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame in 2010. A celebration of his life will be announced at a later date.

Update: Jeff Farrell's gold medals were from the Rome Olympics not the Toyko Olympics.

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