In April, Peter Farrell announced his retirement as head coach of Princeton women’s cross country and track and field. Farrell founded the programs in 1977 and has been their only head coach since. He led the Tigers to 27 Ivy League team titles and two “triple crowns,” in 1980–81 and 2010–11, making him the only Ivy women’s coach to win the cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field titles in a single academic year.
When Farrell announced his retirement to his athletes, he told them it was “just time.” “My wife and I are going to walk into the sunset together — she’s retiring, too,” he said.
Coaching has been a way of life for Farrell’s family. Before he became the head coach at Princeton, he established the girls’ track program at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y. “I haven’t had a weekend off in the fall since 1973,” Farrell said. “We even planned our family around my occupation. My kids were born in the summer for a reason.”
Farrell spurred the growth of women’s distance running by developing a competitive collegiate program. In 1978 he petitioned the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track meet in the country, to allow collegiate women to compete. At Farrell’s last Penn Relays this spring, people lined up to thank him. “He certainly has iconic status in the track community,” said Brian Mondschein, a longtime friend and Farrell’s assistant coach since 2012.
Three of Farrell’s athletes went on to compete in the Olympics, including three-time Olympian and bronze medalist Lynn Jennings ’83, Farrell’s first recruit. Jennings was an Ivy Heps champion who in 1992 became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in distance running.
It’s not just the Olympians whom Farrell remembers. He reserves his highest praise for the athletes who succeed on and off the track. When senior Emily de la Bruyere, Princeton’s No. 2 finisher throughout the 2015 cross country season, was faced with a tough choice between running at nationals or interviewing for the Rhodes scholarship, Mondschein said Farrell was adamant she go to the interview. (She later received a 2016 Michel David-Weill scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in international security at Sciences Po in Paris.)
In typical Farrell fashion, he announced his retirement with a joke: At a Princeton athletics department meeting, he gently stabbed himself with a fork over and over again. “What’s the cliché?” he asked the crowd until someone got the gag. “Stick a fork in him, ’cause he’s done.”
“Peter’s a real wise guy. He’s a typical, Queens/Long Island guy,” said Fred Samara, head coach of the men’s team. Samara and Farrell walked onto campus the same day in 1977. Though Farrell can be a jokester, “he expects excellence from his athletes and knows how to get that in the right way,” Samara said. “I don’t think people appreciate that two coaches can work side by side together for 39 years and have the success we’ve had, and also the friendship and the camaraderie we’ve had.”
Farrell grew up competing at cross country meets in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx on the same course where the women brought home his final Ivy League championship last October. After that victory, Farrell was unanimously selected as the league’s coach of the year.
Of the program he built, Farrell said, “It’s my baby. I birthed it, I nurtured it through tough times and good times. ... I will always be involved with the team, checking the results.”
PAW contributor Alexandra Markovich ’17 is a member of the women’s cross country and track and field teams.